Jul 022013
 

President Obama attempted to reengage on the issue of climate change with a major speech last week and a slew of new proposals designed to prove his presidency will not leave a legacy of inaction on the environment.

The speech came just days before millions of Americans suffered under an astonishing Western heat wave and nearly two dozen firefighter died battling a blaze fueled by more than 120-degree temperatures, the latest in what have been years of visceral impacts from the changes scientists say we have wrought upon the planet. Like last year’s Midwestern drought and last fall’s Superstorm Sandy, the most recent disaster have turned greater attention to a warming climate and presents an opportunity for political action.

But already a familiar pattern of partisan dissent and the consistently underwhelming resolve of the Obama administration and Democrats to make an environmental a top priority in Washington has flooded the discussion, leaving doubts about whether the United States can ever catch up to the rest of the world in becoming a climate change leader.

Speaking at Georgetown University last Tuesday, the president delivered his most extensive remarks yet dedicated solely to the topic of climate change and the need for America to take a more proactive role in crafting sustainable solutions. President Obama declared that “we need to act” in implementing policies and governmental reforms targeted to reducing the carbon emissions behind the rise in global temperatures.

“Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction,” the president said, a nod to the string of weather disasters that have killed hundreds of Americans over the last two years and generated economic pain for millions more.

Yet while he staked the legacy of his administration to curbing emissions and increasing the priority of environmental issues, the president repeated what critics have long complained are opaque proposals for change and unwavering support for the inclusion of fossil fuels in America’s energy future. Rather than raising the bar for progress on fighting climate change, the speech only managed to confirm the skepticism of many in the academic and environmental communities that this president is willing to risk the political capital necessary to pass meaningful laws to reduce emissions and other climate-related policies.

From The New York Times…

President Obama, declaring that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction,” announced sweeping measures on Tuesday to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare the nation for a future of rising temperatures.

Embracing wholeheartedly an issue that could define his legacy but is sure to ignite new political battles with Republicans, Mr. Obama said he would use his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the nation’s power plants.

The carbon cuts at power plants are the centerpiece of a three-pronged climate-change plan that will also involve new federal funds to advance renewable energy technology, as well as spending to fortify cities and states against the ravages of storms and droughts aggravated by a changing climate.

……..

The president’s comments were ambiguous: He did not specify what aspects of the project he was including or what level of climate impact he considers “significant.” Opponents and backers of the pipeline found support for their positions in his remarks.

On the broader climate challenge, however, Mr. Obama was unequivocal. Saying that science had put to rest the debate over whether human activity was responsible for warming the earth, he told an audience at Georgetown University, “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late.”

“As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say, we need to act,” Mr. Obama said to students and others gathered in a sunbaked quadrangle, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, as if to dramatize his point. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Obama’s remarks came days before much of the Western U.S. fell under a giant dome of blistering heat that produced temperatures of 130 degrees in parts of California. The heat wave was called a “once-in-a-century” event by experts, even though such spikes in the mercury have become routine in the last decade.

Besides heat-related deaths tied directly to to the remarkable temperatures, almost 20 specially trained firefighters battling a forest blaze west of Phoenix were killed when the record heat and high winds caused a virtual explosion of flame, trapping the entire crew. It was the worst single loss of lives among emergency workers and firefighters since 9/11.

No longer “once-in-a-lifetime,” unusual and rare weather disasters are becoming commonplace. The Western heat is no exception. One of the most pervasive weather-related killers, dangerous heat is going to get much worse in the coming years as climate change accelerates.

One new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control makes the case that an outbreak of heat-related deaths is already ongoing. The CDC finds that these deaths have been consistently underreported by local officials, and that the threat will get worse as summers become hotter and the higher temperatures last longer.

Think last summer was bad? You better get used to it, federal health officials warned Thursday. Climate change means hotter summers and more intense storms that could knock power out for days — and kill people.

New data on heat-related deaths suggest that public health officials have been underestimating them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. It’s an especially important message as summers get longer and hotter due to climate change, and as storms that can cause widespread blackouts become more common and more intense.

More than 7,200 people died from excess heat from 1999 to 2009, Ethel Taylor and colleagues at the CDC found. The latest numbers, part of the CDC’s weekly report in death and illness, list non-residents for the first time, a group that includes illegal immigrants, tourists, migrant workers and others. These groups suffer especially when it gets hot, Taylor says.

The deadly nature of climate change and clear evidence that Americans are already suffering from direct and oblique consequences of a warming planet have not been enough to break through the partisan gridlock that has been the hallmark of debate over environmental issues over the past several years. Obstinate criticism by conservatives and the bipartisan business lobby have successfully scuttled everything from caps on carbon emissions to support for renewable energy projects.

Rather than creating harmony on the issue of climate change among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, President Obama’s speech has only made critics of action on global warming even more willing to launch vicious attacks on what they claim is an “anti-American” agenda.

House Republicans, largely led by the burgeoning “Tea Party” caucus, savaged the president’s generally mild proposals that environmentalists decry as too friendly to corporations and fossil fuels. Not so, say conservatives in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner labeled the proposals a “war on American energy” even as new data shows domestic energy production is at an all-time high.

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer...

Leading Republicans were using phrases like “anti-American” and “war on American energy” to describe President Obama’s new plan to combat climate change, escalating the rhetoric even before the President’s Georgetown University speech outlining his program.

“President Obama’s anti-American energy plan will increase the price of energy and hurt job creation,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tweeted.  Bachmann is a longtime climate change denier who has defended the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Obama plans to instruct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit and reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.  As with the Romney campaign in 2012, Congressional Republicans have come to the defense of coal.

“Obama administration says we need a ‘war’ on American energy:  GOP thinks energy is the gateway to prosperity,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a tweet.

Of particular concern for Republicans is the president’s call for a curb on power plant emissions that could pinch the coal industry, the dirtiest form of energy currently produced in America.

Even as market forces contribute to the decline of coal, most significantly the lower price and increased availability of natural gas, conservatives insist that the White House is behind coal’s current malaise and that more government support for the industry is needed.

Actually, domestic energy production is at an all-time high:  The substitution of low-cost, low-pollution natural gas — once described as a “prince of fuels” by analyst Daniel Yergin — has cut into America’s carbon dioxide emissions.  It has, however, cut into coal companies’ business.  The industry is looking to use West Coast ports to export coal, mined in Wyoming and Montana, to fuel power plants in China.

But Republicans are digging in to defend coal.  “It’s time we stand up for energy and American jobs:  Tell President Obama to stop the war on coal,” said a Tuesday statement by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Opponents of the President have seized on a quote in the New York Times from Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, who told the NYT it is time America wages a “war on coal.”  Schrag sits on a White House advisory panel.

“Is Obama climate change agenda just cover for a ‘War on Coal’?” asked a headline on the Fox News web site.  Fox serves as a megaphone for the Republican Party, and has set out to encourage climate change doubt in its news reporting.

Boehner, too, accused Obama of putting a lump of coal in the coal industry’s stocking.  “282 coal plants in 32 states closing under Obama administration rules:  That’s like shutting off all electricity in 11 states,” opined the House Speaker.

Actually, coal plants are shutting voluntarily.  Washington State has one coal-burning power plant near the city of Centralia.  Under a 2011 agreement with the state, its owner — Canadian-based Trans-Alta — will reduce emissions and phase out coal in favor of burning natural gas.

Republicans wee not content to contain their disdain for action on climate change to rhetorical assaults. Days after the president’s speech, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would open the doors for a massive expansion of drilling off of U.S. coasts — a sector that is currently “booming” under President Obama’s leadership.

What was innocuously named the “Offshore Energy and Jobs Act” would open nearly every inch of coastline to drilling for oil and natural gas, from the Atlantic to Alaska. What critics slammed as a “Christmas list” for the fossil fuel industry was framed by Republicans as a direct response to Obama’s proposals meant to combat climate change.

From Climate Progress...

President Obama’s speech about climate change at Georgetown University on Tuesday laid out a comprehensive plan to deal with what ClimateProgress editor Joe Romm called “the moral urgency of cutting carbon pollution.” Not surprisingly, the President’s words have fallen on deaf ears on the Republican side of the aisle in the House of Representatives.

Today, less than a month after it was introduced, the House passed H.R. 2231, the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, by a vote of 235 to 186. The bill reads like Big Oil’s Christmas list. It would open virtually all of the U.S. Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast off Southern California, and much of Alaska’s offshore space to new drilling; require the Obama administration to create a new Five-Year Plan for offshore operations; and generally perpetuate an energy agenda driven by climate deniers.

And if the bill is a Christmas list, its lead sponsor Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), is playing the role of Santa Claus. Hastings rushed the bill through the Natural Resources Committee he chairs, holding a hearing (at which I testified) just two days after introducing the bill — without giving sufficient advance notice for the Department of the Interior to even send a witness to represent the administration’s position.

The Committee website describes the legislation as “a contrast to President Obama’s no-new-drilling, no-new-jobs plan.” But the truth in this statement ends with the word “contrast.” In fact, earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal described the offshore oil and gas industry under President Obama as “booming.”

In a striking example of the national disconnect on the severity of global warming, conservatives were attacking the president’s minor tweaks to his climate and energy agenda as radical while environmental activists were outraged by what they claim is Obama’s “lack of urgency” on the issue of climate change.

Scientists and activists responded with disdain to what they say are  mostly hollow proposals that have already been implemented. Critics argue that nothing the president outlined would have a meaningful impact on the man-made emissions now driving the globe’s temperature spike.

And even if the measures were substantive, there is “zero guarantee that he would follow through” following a trail of broken promises and a presidential reelection campaign in which climate change was quite literally exiled out of the race.

Environmentalists warn that President Obama’s ‘climate plan’—announced Tuesday in a speech at Georgetown University—does not contain the urgency required by the fast-spiraling crisis of global warming and climate change and that though some aspects were welcome, the overall approach falls well short of what’s needed.

The plan hinges on Obama’s claim that he plans to use his presidential powers to override a Congress under ‘partisan deadlock’ and order the Environmental Protection Agency to impose carbon emissions limits on current and new power plants.

Though many of the large green groups in the US praised the push for tighter regulation on coal plants by the EPA, critics say Obama’s plan is unclear about exactly how strict these regulations will be. As an example, the president’s plan says that the EPA must be “flexible” to states’ needs, a vague directive that critics charge provides rhetorical cover for further inaction.

Furthermore, critics charge that “new” power plant regulations are hardly groundbreaking or far-reaching enough to meet the demands of the crisis. The 2007 Clean Air Act already empowered the EPA to regulate emissions for new facilities, and yet this has done little to reign in power plant emissions, which account for approximately 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

The president’s only new step on this front is to propose regulations for existing plants, but critics worry that an administration that has dragged its feet so far will not make the necessary headway.

“He promised today to do something, but there is zero guarantee that he will follow through,” declared Bill Snape, senior counsel to the Center for Biological Diversity. “In reality there are so many industrial sources that need to be regulated, and the administration has been moving very slowly on all of them. It is wise to not fall prey to the flowery rhetoric. You have to really specifically look at concrete action.”

Worse than doing nothing, some activists say that Obama’s “ambiguous” proposals would actually do specific and irreversible harm to the environment and efforts to turn back the worst effects of climate change.

Critics point to the president’s embrace of an “all of the above” energy policy that touts some investment in renewables like solar and wind while focusing a far greater commitment to sustaining a reliance on fossil fuels. Of particular concern is the president’s support of natural gas as a “clean” alternative to coal that also means cheap energy — thereby driving down interest in renewable energy projects.

The administration has been enthusiastic about expansion of natural gas development, especially through the highly controversial use of “fracking.” Environmental groups criticized the president for taking a “wrong path” on natural gas that will promote the growth of fracking.

President Barack Obama’s speech this week on climate change forcefully rejected some key arguments made by opponents of natural gas fracking, upsetting some environmental groups that otherwise back his climate goals.

Obama, in his address Tuesday calling for urgent action to address climate change, praised what he called “cleaner-burning natural gas” and its role in providing safe, cheap power that he said can also help reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Regulators in many states with heavy new drilling activity say fracking, a colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, is being done safely and is essentially similar to the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells that have been drilled all over the nation.

The drilling boom has reduced oil and gas imports and generated billions of dollars for companies and landowners. Many scientists and environmental groups also agree with Obama’s main point: that while there are some negative effects from natural gas, burning coal is far worse for the environment and public health. There’s no dispute that natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, but its main component, methane, is a potent heat-trapping gas.

Some environmental groups advocate a total rejection of all fossil fuels and an all-out effort to switch to renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels. They also say people living close to drilling operations have suffered from too much pollution.

“When it comes to natural gas, the president is taking the wrong path,” Deb Nardone, the head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas program, wrote in a blog post.

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who argues that methane leaks from drilling negate other climate benefits of gas, said in an email to The Associated Press that he is “extremely disappointed in the President’s position” and said the support for natural gas “is very likely to do more to aggravate global change than to help solve it.”

What climate scientists and activist groups are most concerned about is the president’s wavering opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, a modern centerpiece of the national environmental movement and a project that many fear could be a “tipping point” in the ability to turn back the effects of global warming.

The White House has consistently softened its position on the pipeline starting with the 2012 presidential campaign, culminating in a startlingly favorable “ultimatum” delivered by the president during his climate speech.

Faced with the prospect of making a final decision on whether Keystone will be approved, President Obama said last week that he would only green-light the pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast if  a determination was made that it “would not exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” 

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” Obama said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

“The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” he added. “It is relevant.”

Fortunately for the oil industry backing the Keystone project, the government has already created its own report that says exactly that, going against most scientific research by alleging that the pipeline would only lead to a negligible increase in carbon emissions.

A State Department report released in March and sharply criticized by the scientific and environmental communities came to the conclusion that U.S. approval of Keystone would make a “small impact” on future greenhouse-gas emissions, essentially meeting President Obama’s more recent guidelines.

With the blueprint already in place, most insiders expect the president to deliver a relatively swift and authoritative approval of Keystone XL by this winter — a political boon to Democrats and likely a catastrophe for the climate.

From National Journal...

Based on conversations with administration insiders, here’s how I envision the final act of the long-running Keystone drama playing out:

Secretary of State John Kerry, who counts combatting climate change as one of his lifelong passions, will recommend to President Obama that he should not approve the pipeline, which would send 35 million gallons of oil every day over 1,700 miles from Alberta’s carbon-heavy oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama will decide to approve the project, in large part because he will have secured commitments from Canada to do more to reduce its carbon emissions.

Obama will publicly repudiate Kerry, akin to how Obama publicly repudiated Lisa Jackson, his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, two years ago when she asked the White House to let her move forward on a stronger smog standard. On the Friday before Labor Day 2011, Obama announced that he was delaying the standard because of economic concerns.

At that point in time, Jackson endured as the champion for disenchanted environmentalists.

Sometime this winter—I predict in December—Kerry will play that same role when Obama decides to approve the pipeline.

The response from pipeline proponents, especially Republicans in Congress, will be jubilation. More importantly, approval of the project can only help, not hurt, Democrats up for reelection in 2014, including Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mark Begich in Alaska, who all support the pipeline and have more-conservative energy positions than Obama. But because the decision comes nearly a year before Election Day 2014, it will likely be old political news by the time campaigns kick into high gear.

Jun 272013
 

Pres. Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Millions of Americans could lose their ability to cast a ballot in more than a dozen states under a stunning Supreme Court ruling that is considered the “death knell” of what had been the centerpiece of the nation’s premier civil rights legislation.

Only months after a contentious presidential election that featured long lines at the polls as well as efforts by many states to toss individuals off of voter rolls and implement strict identification requirements that would have disenfranchised millions, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision this week that the law which blocked the most extreme state-based voting restrictions was no longer valid.

State governments dominated by white Republicans like Texas and North Carolina, no longer tethered by impartial federal oversight meant to protect minorities, are now rushing through sweeping voting reforms that likely would have been rejected.

Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court declared that maps drawn up during last century’s bitter struggle to protect and enforce civil rights in mostly Southern states with a history of racial discrimination were outdated and did not reflect the progress and modernity of these sections of the country. Cited as one of the crowing achievements of American democracy, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a “big government” relic that offered too many protections for minority voters, according to the Supreme Court.

But rather than be saddled with the ignominious reputation of having killed that historic legislation outright, the court’s conservative majority merely targeted the most prominent and effective provision of the Voting Rights Act for immediate reform. A striking fact of the majority opinion is that the court did not declare racial discrimination at the polls to be wholly extinct, but rather the different breed of discrimination is so broad as to be not worth the effort to keep it in check. The “country has changed,” said Roberts, seeming to ignore the electoral debacles of 2012 as well as the fact that more than 80 percent of national voter discrimination cases have originated in states covered by the Voting Rights Act .

And even worse than voiding it altogether, the justices delivered a verdict almost guaranteed to drastically weaken its intent; the decision placed responsibility for crafting new provisions for federal oversight within the broader VRA up to a hopelessly divided Congress.

From NBC News...

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws.

Civil rights activists called the decision devastating, and a dissenting justice said it amounted to the “demolition” of the law, widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history.

The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map, if it can agree on one at all.

“In practice, in reality, it’s probably the death knell of this provision,” said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News.

The Voting Rights Act requires nine states with a history of discrimination at the polls, mostly in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department or a special panel of judges before they change their voting laws. The rule also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere.

The law was renewed most recently in 2006, but the coverage map still uses election data from 1972 to determine who is covered. Some jurisdictions, including the Alabama county that brought the case, complained that they were being punished for the sins of many decades ago.

Roberts cited census data showing that black voter turnout now exceeds white turnout in five of the six states originally covered by the law.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote for the court.

As evidence for the assertion that parts of the country once infamous for odious and onerous regimes of racist and discriminatory pressure against minority voters, Roberts and his conservative colleagues pointed to the boom in minority voter registration in the South and other states covered by the oversight protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act.

More black voters means less racism and an equal electoral playing field, according to VRA opponents.

As part of the ruling Tuesday, the court published a chart comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the six states originally covered. In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared — 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.

“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Roberts wrote. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

Absent from this conclusion was the near certainty that such positive advancement in the civil rights of black citizens was due solely to the federal jurisdiction of state and local voting laws in the areas covered by the VRA. Without such strict regulation, the march to racial parity in registrations would have been virtually impossible. And such parity has only been preserved because voting changes proposed in these states that would have decreased minority voter registration have been blocked by Washington before they could go into effect.

Reaction from minority groups and civil rights activists has included rage and defiance. Veterans of the struggles for justice that marked the 1960′s were the most strident in condemning the court’s ultimate decision.

Rep. John Lewis, hero of Selma and a key participant in crafting the original bill, accused Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow conservatives of placing a “dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act by striking down its core of federal oversight.

From The Washington Post…

The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes.

While the Roberts Supreme Court and right-wing critics of the law perceive the Voting Rights Act and its broader principles to be a bloated and unnecessary burden of federal government on states and localities, the law and its specific provisions have actually received overwhelming bipartition support on Capitol Hill.

Largely ignored by opponents has been the repeated instances of congressional approval of the VRA in House and Senate votes required to renew its various measures and mandates. The most recent renewal occurred in 2006, when only 33 members of the House of Representatives — and not one US senator –  voted against a long-term extension of the Voting Rights Act through the year 2031.

Despite the nearly 50-year-old law being one of the rare items to produce bipartisan relations and near universal support on Capitol Hill, the escalating partisanship in Washington and surge of GOP interest in shutting out minority voters at the state level makes the Supreme Court’s vision of a relatively quick and easy makeover of the VRA’s oversight provision by members of Congress a virtual lock to fail.

Democrats in charge of the Senate have vowed swift action to restore the court’s “demolition” of the Voting Rights Act, but the Tea Party-backed Republican majority in the House is likely to either let the provisions die or seek to aggressively go in the opposite direction, demanding congressional protection for states to do everything from purge their voter rolls to implement even tougher voter ID requirements.

Right-wing enthusiasm for the Roberts ruling and the death of the VRA is merely taken for granted,  with some House Republicans publicly acknowledging that they have remained silent on the issue following the decision because their passionate support for eliminating federal voting law oversight could be “interpreted as racism.”

Needless to say, Republicans are not going to be redrawing discrimination maps in the near future.

From Politico...

Most House Republicans were relatively subdued in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Tuesday decision to strike parts of the Voting Rights Act.

Conservative Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said that was no accident, but the result of a fear that their remarks would be interpreted as racism.

“In this day and age, no matter what argument one makes, even if it’s based on verifiable principle or the sincerest intention for the most noble purpose, it is often relegated to hate speech or something along those lines. Those who can’t debate the issue on its merits often resort to calling into question the motives of everyone who would advocate a particular position,” Franks told POLITICO.

Franks — who opposed reauthorizing the VRA in 2006 — said it was in their own best interests that most of the House GOP leadership didn’t raise its voice to support the Supreme Court decision.

“The leadership probably made a wise decision — the courts have said what many of us have believed — but I don’t think we can be intimidated though by the unmitigated carelessness with which the other side casts aspersions of racism in our direction all the time when all we’re trying to do is truly speak up for the indigenous equality of every human being.

It is impossible to overstate the importance and effectiveness of the two sections found in the Voting Rights Act that set standards for which federal permission is needed when states or local governments seek to change any laws related to voting. IN spite of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of such authority as an unconstitutional time warp, enforcement of minority rights under the law has not been in any way diminished or less frequent since the height of the civil rights struggles in the middle of last century.

As Ari Berman points out in The Nation, states where blacks were purposefully marginalized in the 1960′s have changed little in the decades since. While the scope of such controversial endeavors like voter ID requirements have expanded to parts of the country outside of the South, it is that region that still remains the hotbed of discriminatory voting changes and in which federal oversight has been the most active and effective over nearly five decades.

But past remains present to a disturbing degree in the South. It turns out that states and counties with a history of voting discrimination in 1964 are still trying to suppress the growing minority vote today. Consider, for example, that eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy passed new voting restrictions since the 2010 election. These included laws requiring government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), proof of citizenship to register to vote (Alabama and Tennessee), cutbacks to early voting (Florida, Georgia and Tennessee) and disenfranchising of ex-felons (Florida). All of these changes make it harder for minority voters to participate in the political process.

Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the “keystone of our voting rights,” can’t stop all of these ills, but it remains the most effective tool the federal government has to object to discriminatory voting changes in the South. “The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years,” the Department of Justice argued in a recent court filing.

While only the provision known as “Section 4″ of the Voting Rights Act was specifically deemed unconstitutional in the court’s ruling this week, that move simultaneously renders the more powerful “Section 5″ essentially useless and unenforceable.

Throwing out what could be called the “map of discrimination” used to determine where the provisions included in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are to be enforced by the Justice Department destroys the legal structure in which states and regions on that map need to seek federal permission for changes to voting procedures. Section 5′s oversight provisions are basically homeless, unable to be enforced anywhere in the country without that specific map of discriminatory hotspots.

The destruction of the VRA’s Section 5 oversight is the most conspicuous and potentially devastating result of the Supreme Court’s decision. It was under this measure that thousands of racially discriminatory voting laws were nullified and blocked by the federal government, eventually creating that perfect balance of minority voters that John Roberts cited to kill the same law.

Statistics from the Brennan Center for Justice, which calls Section 5 the “heart of the Voting Rights Act, clearly illustrate its effectiveness and ubiquitous role in protecting black and minority voters across the South. Even today, the Section 5 provisions were used to block voter ID laws and discriminatory redistricting plans leading up to the 2012 election.

Section 5 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It requires covered jurisdictions to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. — before it goes into effect — to ensure it does not harm minority voters. This blocks discrimination before it occurs. This process is known as “preclearance.” Section 5 applies to all or part of 16 states. See here for a complete list.

Section 5 is an essential and proven tool. Although progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voting discrimination still persists. Between 1982 and 2006 (when Congress overwhelmingly renewed the law), the Voting Rights Act blocked more than 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes. Without Section 5’s protection, these changes would have gone into effect and harmed minority voters.

Section 5 is still needed to prevent and address real and continuing threats to Americans’ right to vote. States continue to enact laws to restrict minority voting access. Section 5 is a proven remedy to protect voters. In 2012, it blocked a highly-restrictive voter ID laws in Texas and a law in Florida that eliminated early voting days, which would have made it more difficult for hundreds of thousands of minority voters to cast a ballot.

Thus freed from any impartial oversight and mandates requiring sensitivity towards minority voters, red states in the South where discriminatory voting restrictions had previously been blocked by the Justice Department are now rushing to implement their proposed changes before the unlikely event of congressional action to restore the VRA’s provisions.

Republicans across the South announced plans for new voter ID laws, changes to redistricting and other controversial moves within moments of the court’s decision. Governors and state lawmakers praised the Supreme Court for what they claimed was a recognition of racial progress and the changing attitudes in the ex-Confederacy, but then pivoted to the introduction of proposals that would specifically target black or minority voters for marginalization.

With no ability for Washington to intervene — at least momentarily — these states are free to do almost anything related to voting rights in order to cement Republican majorities and enact sweeping reforms meant to diminish the weight of minority votes and sought by conservatives for years.

Across the South, Republicans are working to take advantage of a new political landscape after a divided U.S. Supreme Court freed all or part of 15 states, many of them in the old Confederacy, from having to ask Washington’s permission before changing election procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination.

After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.

…….

Southern Republicans largely hailed Roberts’ opinion as recognition of racial progress since President Lyndon Johnson signed the law at the apex of the civil rights movement.

“Over the last half-century, Georgia has reformed, and our state is a proud symbol of progress,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Today’s decision guarantees that Georgia will be treated like every other state — a right we have earned.” In neighboring Alabama, where the case originated, Gov. Robert Bentley said, “We have long lived up to what happened” in the Jim Crow era, “and we have made sure it’s not going to happen again.”

Inciting the rush to seize on the advantageous ruling handed down by the Supreme Court is a desire to implement voter ID laws and other voting reforms in time for the 2014 midterm election. With important races across the country and the fate of which party controls the  House and Senate potentially in the balance, red state leaders are moving fast to make sure the GOP has the upper hand.

From Politico...

The Supreme Court decision Tuesday striking down a key plank of the Voting Rights Act dramatically eases the way for states to push through stricter voting laws — and the flurry of action could reverberate into 2014 and beyond.

Some states such as Texas moved within hours of the landmark ruling to implement so-called voter ID laws — requiring voters to show valid identification before they can cast ballots — that had been on hold. Others, such as swing state North Carolina, are expected to pass legislation this year that could complicate Democrats’ chances in 2014 midterm elections.

Democrats hope to use the issue to galvanize minority voters by accusing the conservative-leaning Supreme Court and Republican statehouses of turning back the clock on hard-won voting rights. But the effect of the actual statutes, in terms of preventing people from voting who show up to the polls without proper ID, could be “devastating and immediate,” said Penda Hair, co-director of the voting rights group Advancement Project.

In North Carolina, the Republican governor and GOP-led Legislature have been working to pass a strict photo ID requirement, as well as restrictions on voter registration deadlines and on students voting on campus. Passage of those laws is likely to speed up now that the court has effectively removed preclearance, which critics said unfairly subjected southern states to excessive federal scrutiny that is no longer warranted.

The high court decision brings the law “into this century, not the last century,” North Carolina GOP state Sen. Tom Apodaca told The Charlotte Observer.

 

Jun 122013
 

From Truthalliance.net

Civil liberties groups and privacy rights advocates may be left disappointed if they are waiting for lawmakers or the federal government to take action after the recent disclosure of vast data collection systems being run by US intelligence services.

Since the existence of two separate operations devoted to spying on the phone calls and web history of American citizens were leaked to the press there has been a largely bipartisan rush to defend the need for such programs and blowback against the alleged leaker and the newspapers that publicized what had been classified secrets. There have been few calls from lawmakers to enact reforms of the government’s anti-terror intelligence system despite the breathtaking scope of the Obama administration’s snooping.

It was last week that Britain’s Guardian newspaper first revealed that the FBI and National Security Agency were using top secret court orders to collect data on every phone call placed within and from the United States by Verizon customers, and likely every other mobile and landline telephone network in the country, These government agencies have been able to amass information such as which numbers are called and for how long on virtually every citizen, although the administration has stressed that contents of calls are not analyzed.

Even more shocking was a report compiled by the Washington Post just days later that detailed the existence of an even more intrusive effort by the government to collect and store large amounts of information on the communication activity of Americans.

Code named PRISM, this operation targeted the servers of major internet providers and web-based communication companies. Tech giants like Apple and Facebook were compelled by the NSA and FBI to give them unlimited and on-demand access to vast swaths of sensitive data ranging from photos and messages to basic web searches.

Considered the “first of its kind,” PRISM is the latest incarnation of President George W. Bush’s sullied warrantless wiretap program that were eventually ruled unconstitutional and largely abandoned before President Obama took office. Working with Congress, the outgoing Bush administration and subsequently the newly elected Obama administration crafted a series of compromises that sought to revive data-mining and domestic surveillance with more pronounced legal justifications.

What the Obama security apparatus has constructed is technically legal — with secret court orders processed to give agencies seeking to collect data carte blanche authority — but far more extensive, reaching into every aspect of Americans’ lives and the modern communication system used by nearly every citizen.

From The Washington Post...

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.

Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”

…….

Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

Details of the program remain hazy. While PRISM is officially designed to perform surveillance on foreign targets who may be communicating with individuals inside the US, there is only a loose set of guidelines meant to keep agents in check. Data collectors are required to make what is essentially a 50-50 calculation of their target’s “foreignness” before demanding companies hand over data, but “incidental” mining of domestic communications is unavoidable.

Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that “it’s nothing to worry about.”

Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially. The same math explains the aphorism, from the John Guare play, that no one is more than “six degrees of separation” from any other person.

Already frustrated by a series of tussles with the media and congressional Republicans over “scandals” of a vatying degree of legitimacy, the White House has been particularly aggressive in fighting back against the press and other critics of counterterrorism surveillance.

President Obama has denied that the collection of phone records and electronic communications is as extensive of commonplace as media reports in dictate and that members of Congress had been repeatedly kept abreast of developments and legal justification for all spy programs.

Despite only being revealed through illegal leaks provided by a whistle-blower, PRISM and the NSA’s blanket phone surveillance operation “are not secret,” President Obama said in remarks shortly after the duakl Guardian and Post stories broke.

The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed,” he said during a speech in San Jose, Calif. “These are programs that have been authored by large bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.”

“Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed,” he said.

…….

In response to a question after his speech, Obama defended the programs as essential to combating terrorist threats. “They may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism,” he said.

He also argued that some have overstated the impact of the programs. “Some of the hype we’ve been hearing over the past day or so — nobody has listened to the content of people’s phone calls,” he said.

“I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy,” he continued. “I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.”

Public anger and media skepticism has steadily grown over the broad expansion of government spying powers that have taken place largely behind closed doors. One new public poll finds that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose comprehensive collection on phone records or communication data if they target ordinary citizens and not only “terrorist” suspects.

But most lawmakers on Capitol Hill are rejecting the concerns of their constituents and have done so for years, rubber-stamping requests for greater spying powers by both the Bush and Obama administrations that eventually led to the creation of the government phone and internet data-mining activities revealed this week.

President Obama is correct when he claims that Congress was fully aware of the nature, if not the specific details, of domestic surveillance protocols run by the FBI and NSA. White House officials released documents that show 22 meetings with members of Congress concerning the legislation used as justification for data collection targeting ordinary Americans.

From The Hill newspaper...

The White House held 22 Hill briefings over 14 months on the law that national security officials cite in defending a secret surveillance program that collects information from Internet use and telephone calls, according to a senior administration official.

Since October 2011, there have been 22 briefings to lawmakers on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Act Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, the official said via an email. That legislation allows the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to collect information on people in the United States who aren’t citizens for as long as one year.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress not only had long-standing knowledge of mass data-mining and spying on internet communications performed by the government, they played the biggest role in the creation of laws and guidelines that led to the explosion in domestic spying in the decade following the 9/11 attacks.

It was in the emotional response upon learning the intelligence failures leading up to the worst terror incident on US soil that prompted a rapid and unprecedented response from Congress that granted vast powers to the government and its security apparatus. One congressional repoort singled out the National Security Agency for a “cautious” approach that did not “aggressively” target modern communications — like cell phones and the internet –  for surveillance.

From National Journal…

On December 20, 2002, a Senate Intelligence Committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today one of the most vociferous critics of the so-called “surveillance state,” came to the following conclusion in its official report on the mistakes that led to 9/11: The National Security Agency had harmed U.S. counterterrorism efforts that might have prevented that terrible day because of the agency’s “failure to address modern communications technology aggressively.”

The report, a joint effort of the Senate committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, blamed “NSA’s cautious approach to any collection of intelligence relating to activities in the United States, and insufficient collaboration between NSA and the FBI regarding the potential for terrorist attacks within the United States.”

The Senate-House report said the NSA simply could not keep up with the explosion of information technology. “Only a tiny fraction” of the NSA’s 650 million daily intercepts worldwide “are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of data,” the report said.

There were exceptions to the largely supportive or even indifferent reaction to what were, at the time, classified briefings on secret surveillance programs.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden raised concerns more than one year ago when he directly challenged the president’s Director of National Intelligence about the possibility that sensitive data was being compiled on ordinary citizens through programs designed for counterterrorism. DNI James Clapper’s emphatic denial of the existence of secret snooping programs is now the subject of great debate over whether he lied to Congress, but it failed to generate any alarms at the time.

From MSNBC’s Maddow Blog...

In March, at an open congressional hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a simple question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper said the NSA does no such thing. We’ve now seen pretty obvious evidence to the contrary.

When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Clapper over the weekend about the exchange, he said the question was “not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no,” so he “responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, ‘No.’ “

Little has changed since Wyden’s question in May of 2012. While a handful of liberal Democrats, libertarian Republicans and civil liberties groups express outrage, more typical was the strong defense of domestic spying programs offered by lawmakers on both sides.

Members of Congress on both the left and right rushed not to excoriate the president for legally questionable snooping, but to vigorously defend the necessity of unprecedented surveillance against Americans by their own government, insisting that “protecting America” meant that such data collection was justifiable.

From Global Post...

Lawmakers rushed to defend the National Security Agency’s surveillance of millions of Americans’ phone records on Thursday, saying the move was justified in the face of terrorist threats.

“We should just calm down and understand this is not something that is brand new,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s been going on for some seven years. And we’ve tried often to try to make it better, and we’ll continue to do that.”

“It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress,” Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) at an impromptu press conference in Washington, saying that the seized records are “just metadata” with “no content of a communication involved.”

“I read intelligence carefully. And I know that people are trying to get to us,” Feinstein said. “This is the reason we keep TSA doing what it’s doing. This the reason the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the national counterterrorism center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active.”

“And it’s to ferret this out before it happens,” she added. “It’s called protecting America.”

“An individual has nothing to worry about … they have to prove to a judge that there’s probable cause that you’re involved in terrorism,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “If we don’t do it, we’re crazy.”

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee went further, claiming that the NSA phone-monitoring operation had been used directly to disrupt and prevent terrorist attacks in the United States.

Republican Rep. Mike Rogers said that the government’s access to every phone record in the country had stopped at least one terror attack on American soil “within the last few years.”

“Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said during a press conference. “We know that. It’s important. It fills in a little seam that we have, and it’s used to make sure that there is not an international nexus to any terrorism event that they may believe is ongoing in the United States.”

Acquiescence from Congress has not deterred advocates for privacy rights from taking significant action to shut down the government’s surveillance culture and hold the Obama administration accountable for what they claim are “chilling”  unconstitutional excesses.

On Tuesday, officials with the American Civil Liberties Union announced a lawsuit against the federal government over the collection of nationwide phone records that they say goes beyond even what the highly controversial “Patriot Act” allows under law.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU said an NSA program that harvests phone calls violates the rights of all Americans.

“The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

……

In its lawsuit — which deals just with the phone call program — the ACLU said that the NSA collection system violates rights of free speech and privacy. The ACLU noted it is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, the recipient of a secret court order published by The Guardian last week. The order requires Verizon to turn over all phone call details, including who places them, who receives them and when and where they are made.

“The crux of the government’s justification for the program is the chilling logic that it can collect everyone’s data now and ask questions later,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project.

 

Jun 052013
 

Almost four decades after the percentage of American women holding a job crested 40 percent, what many are calling an archaic debate is breaking out among some influential men about the role of women in the workplace. 

Arguments over the place women hold in the societal and economic structure of the US may seem quaint and misplaced in an era when the favorite to be the next president is female and scores of top corporate executives are women, but rancor over the growing independence of women has seized the consciousness of many in the political and business communities.

Nothing demonstrated the influence of women and their powerful modern role than the most recent election campaign. Hamstrung by a slew of candidates and personalities that drew headlines with derogatory comments or controversial policies that targeted women, conservatives lost the female vote in a landslide to President Obama and other Democrats in numerous state and federal races. The storyline of a right-wing “war on women” has become a prominent focus in national and regional politics as many lawmakers seek to relitigate issues like birth control and reproductive rights,

While some may consider the politics of abortion and religion to be a “hot button” that is cloaked in controversy, even more basic developments in the decades-long struggle for gender equality and the protection of women’s rights has been revived by influential men in politics and on Wall Street.

Those dual narratives of a woman’s place in politics and the economy came to a head in particular comments by the Republican governor of Mississippi this week that cemented the conservative position of “traditional” family values over economic and societal equality for women.

Gov. Phil Bryant told a Washington Post panel that the nation’s educational system has started to fail because “the mom is in the workplace.” Bryant proceeded to distance himself from that particular comment, but such opposition to women being able to work outside the home is a common theme among Republicans.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said Tuesday that America’s educational troubles began when women began working outside the home in large numbers.

Bryant was participating in a Washington Post Live event focused on the importance of ensuring that children read well by the end of third grade. In response to a question about how America became “so mediocre” in regard to educational outcomes, he said:

I think both parents started working. And the mom is in the work place.

Bryant immediately recognized how controversial his remark would be and said he knew  he would start to get e-mails. He then expanded on his answer, saying that “both parents are so pressured” in families today. He also noted that America seemed to be losing ground internationally in regards to educational outcomes because other nations began to invest more in their own school systems and make progress.

Bryant’s are only one of a string of recent remarks that have sought to disparage or discourage the idea of women and mothers holding down important or full-time jobs, a situation they argue is unsuccessful for the woman and harms a “traditional” family structure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as women gain a greater foothold in the national and global economy and begin rivaling men for prominent political and corporate positions, a backlash is developing under the guise of “values” and protecting families.

Despite a number of recent examples of high-profile women balancing young families and top corporate jobs (like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer), the theory that women with children somehow cannot be as successful as men in the same position has been developed by at least one important Wall Street titan.

Hedge fund magnate Paul Tudor Jones has come under fire for his comments in April that being a mother was a “focus killer” and that moms had no ability to compete with men in Wall Street trading jobs.

“You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men, period, end of story,” the well-respected billionaire remarked. He was forced to issue an apology once video of his opinion was leaked to the media.

From CNBC…

It is difficult for mothers to become traders because connecting with a child is a “focus killer,” hedge-fund chief Paul Tudor Jones told an audience at a Q and A session at the University of Virginia last month. Responding to a question from the audience about why the panel of hedge-fund heavy hitters didn’t include any women, Jones said, “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men, period, end of story.”

(He also released a statement Friday, after a video of his remarks hit the web. Apologizing that “my remarks offended,” he added: “I believe that great success is possible in any field … as long as a woman or man has the skill, passion, and repetitions to work through the inevitable life events that arise along the way.”)

Appropriateness of such a statement aside, the opposite of the “women-can’t-be-traders” sentiment is actually true. Rather than eroding their “focus,” women and mothers in the trading sector have been found to perform as good or notably better than their male counterparts.

One major study discovered that returns for women were much higher than that of men, largely due to “hyperactive trading” that eroded any gains among male traders.

From Business Insider…

And he points to the seminal piece of research on the topic by the distinguished behavioural economists Terrence Odean and Brad Barber. ’ Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence and Commons Stock Investment .’

In their 2001 study, they analysed account data for more 35,000 households at a large discount brokerage between February 1991 to January 1997. They discovered that on average, men traded 45pc more frequently than women and that this hyperactive trading reduced their net returns by 2.65pc a year, compared to 1.72pc for women. Their explanation for the high levels of counterproductive trading in financial markets was overconfidence. Men trade more than women – and thereby reduce their returns.

While it may be understandable for tradition-bound Wall Street veterans to feel threatened as women increasingly assimilate in what is stereotypically thought of a s a male-dominated profession, the very notion that any woman can or should be the economic powerhouse of a family is coming under attack from some commentators.

Reacting to a Pew study that showed women as the sole or primary breadwinners in the largest percentage of American  households on record, two (male) political commentators on fox News described this shift in financial roles as “tearing us apart” and proof that “something is terribly wrong” in modern society.

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson insisted that “biology” dictates that females must be submissive and play a “complementary role” to the “dominant” male.

From Huffington Post…

Juan Williams said it was “something going terribly wrong in American society, and it’s hurting our children, and it’s going to have impact for generations to come.”

Fellow guest Erick Erickson said it was a downright repudiation of nature itself.

“When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society, and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it’s tearing us apart.”

“The politicians won’t say it,” Williams said. “They won’t admit this!”

That groundbreaking Pew poll is the most startling evidence yet of the rapidly evolving economic role that women now have in the modern US economy. It is the strongest indication yet that the trend of a female electorate shifting away from “values” issues and placing greater emphasis on more basic and fundamental questions about economic policies and programs when considering their vote.

Pew finds that women make up the sole or primary source of income in at least 40 percent of US households, a significant increase from decades past and even a sizable jump from just ten years ago. Only 11 percent of households had women as “breadwinners” in 1960.

The demographics of households economically dominated by women are also changing. While the traditional picture of a single mother providing for her children is still most prevalent, a greater percentage of married women are their family’s main income source than ever before.

A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11% in 1960.

These “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.

…….

The growth of both groups of mothers is tied to women’s increasing presence in the workplace. Women make up almost of half (47%) of the U.S. labor force today, and the employment rate of married mothers with children has increased from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.

Regardless of their new place of prominence in the American economy and as the leading provider for millions of families,  women have yet to gain widespread recognition as a legitimate member of the national job market. Women still face widespread discrimination and unique challenges that their male colleagues or even men in less advanced jobs do not.

Basic treatment of female colleagues or employees at the hands of largely male supervisors and executives has yet to catch up with decades of broader progress for working women. Most women say there is prominent “bias” in the workplace, including lopsided pay benefiting men and inappropriate behavior from coworkers or supervisors.

From The Wall Street Journal…

 Women in large numbers believe they face disadvantages in the workplace, including lower pay than men and other forms of discrimination—opinions that haven’t budged during a period when public opinion has shifted markedly on many other social issues, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey shows.

Decades after women began flooding into the workforce, 84% of women say men are paid more for similar work, a view borne out by government data but which draws agreement from only two-thirds of men. More than four in 10 women say they have faced gender discrimination personally, most often in the workplace. Both findings are little changed from a 1997 survey.

……

Many women offered a different perspective, with 46% saying they’ve experienced discrimination because they’re women, a number that has increased slightly from a 2000 survey.

“When I was working, I could go to a meeting and offer an opinion, and it was like I didn’t even say a word,” said Christine Dale, 42, who lives in Illinois and participated in the poll. “A guy can offer the same opinion and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant.’ “

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that women who work full-time earn 79% of the weekly pay that men bring home. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which tracks the gender wage gap, finds that women’s median earnings lag men’s in almost every occupation. While the gap narrowed during the 1980s and 1990s, there has been little movement since 2000, said Ariane Hegewisch, the institute’s study director.

The most public example of the bias displayed against women by private business is the continued existence of a significant gender pay gap. Even in 2013, after numerous attempts by states and the federal government to legislate fairness, women earn more than 30 cents less than men for every dollar earned on the job.
Further efforts to confront the disparity in pay for women has been stymied by conservative opposition. One Republican congresswoman, ostensibly speaking for all of her gender, claimed that women “don’t want” to be paid as much as men for the same job, and that Washington should stand clear of corporate interests.
`

Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn said on Sunday that women “don’t want” equal pay laws.

During a roundtable discussion on NBC’s Meet The Press, former White House advisor David Axelrod asked if the Tennessee lawmaker would support a law promoting workplace gender equality. Blackburn responded:

“I think that more important than that is making certain that women are recognized by those companies. You know, I’ve always said that I didn’t want to be given a job because I was a female, I wanted it because I was the most well-qualified person for the job. And making certain that companies are going to move forward in that vein, that is what women want. They don’t want the decisions made in Washington. They want to be able to have the power and the control and the ability to make those decisions for themselves.”

Blackburn voted against the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a landmark bill for women’s rights in the workplace. The law makes it easier for women to file wage discrimination suits against employers. She also voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2009.

May 302013
 

Fueled by a wave of success that has seen new laws cracking down on the availability and legality of abortions across dozens of states, pro-life conservatives now want to cross a significant threshold in their nationwide crusade: criminalizing miscarriages. 

Sparked by big Republican victories in the 2010 elections, conservative lawmakers in state after state have passed tough and in many cases legally questionable laws and regulations targeting the reproductive rights of women and women’s health clinics, making the effort their top legislative priority.

Even with many states still facing high unemployment and the country barely removed from a crippling recession, political allies of the pro-life movement have not wavered from a laser-like focus to severely limit access to abortion services or regulate them out of existence entirely.

Many of the new state-based laws are so unprecedented and restrictive that they appear crafted specifically to challenge Roe v Wade and ignite a national push to outlaw abortion. Civil liberties and women’s rights organizations call the host of state regulations passed by “red states,” from bans on most kinds of abortion procedures to regulatory minutiae designed to shutter clinics, as “excessive and inappropriate.”

But also clear from the refreshed interest shown by conservatives in legislating against a woman’s right to choose is a far broader target. Not confined to the traditionally antagonistic politics of abortion rights, ”Pro-life” lawmakers have gradually turned their attention to all sorts of restrictive laws related to pregnancy and personal family planning.

Contraception has “exploded” as a hot button issue among many conservatives and evangelical groups, with states passing new laws alongside their abortion crackdown and congressional Republicans proposing national bills that would limit access to birth control.

Last year was not a great one for abortion rights. First, congressional Republicans attempted to deny statutory rape victims access to Medicaid-funded abortions (twice). Then GOP-dominated state legislatures pushed record numbers of laws limiting abortion rights, including proposals that could have treated killing abortion providers as “justifiable homicide.”

Yet in the past six months, social conservatives have widened their offensive, and their new target is clear: Not satisfied with making it harder to obtain legal abortions, they want to limit access to birth control, too.

“Contraception is under attack in a way it really wasn’t in the past few years,” says Judy Waxman, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center. “In 2004, we could not find any group—the National Right to Life Committee, the Bush campaign, anyone—that would go on the record to say they’re opposed to birth control,” adds Elizabeth Shipp, the political director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We couldn’t find them in 2006 either, and in 2008 it was just fringe groups. In 2010, 2011, and this year, it’s just exploded.”

Grabbing the most headlines has been anger among evangelicals and conservative lawmakers over the inclusion of birth control coverage in the new “Obamacare” federal health care overhaul. The provision, designed to increase contraceptive access among poor women, generated intense controversy and opposition from churches during last year’s presidential campaign and spilling over into lawsuits seeking to overturn the administration’s policy.

Now anti-abortion activists and elected officials are breaking new ground in a fight that has developed into casting a much larger net than simply abortion rights or access to contraceptives.

A woman in Mississippi was charged by state prosecutors with manslaughter for the “culpable negligence” that the notoriously anti-abortion state claims caused her miscarriage. Brought forward in 2009, the case now stands to be ruled on shortly by the state supreme court.

Using homicide laws against women after they suffer a miscarriage or a stillbirth is “unprecedented” and goes against the intended use of such serious criminal charges. But there have been more than 400 women jailed for losing their unborn babies across the country, according to pro-choice groups, and the treatment of “unintentional pregnancy-loss” as a homicide is increasing in popularity along with the state-based wave of other pregnancy-related restrictions.

Though the specific causes of miscarriage and stillbirth are notoriously hard to determine, Mississippi officials insist that any act that could theoretically “damage” a fetus — is a prosecutable offense. Such a decision is raising fears of copycat laws or prosecutions in other states, especially if they are pitched as means of “protecting” women and their unborn children.

From Mother Jones:

On March 14, 2009, 31 weeks into her pregnancy, Nina Buckhalter gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. She named the child Hayley Jade. Two months later, a grand jury in Lamar County, Mississippi, indicted Buckhalter for manslaughter, claiming that the then-29-year-old woman “did willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, kill Hayley Jade Buckhalter, a human being, by culpable negligence.”

The district attorney argued that methamphetamine detected in Buckhalter’s system caused Hayley Jade’s death. The state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case on April 2, is expected to rule soon on whether the prosecution can move forward.

If prosecutors prevail in this case, the state would be setting a “dangerous precedent” that “unintentional pregnancy loss can be treated as a form of homicide,” says Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit legal organization that has joined with Robert McDuff, a Mississippi civil rights lawyer, to defend Buckhalter. If Buckhalter’s case goes forward, NAPW fears it could spur a wave of similar prosecutions in Mississippi and other states.

Mississippi’s manslaughter laws were not intended to apply in cases of stillbirths and miscarriages. Four times between 1998 through 2002, Mississippi lawmakers rejected proposals that would have set specific penalties for damaging a fetus by using illegal drugs during pregnancy. But Mississippi prosecutors say that two other state laws allow them to charge Buckhalter. One defines of manslaughter as the “killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another”; another includes “an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth” in the state’s definition of human beings.

The cause of any given miscarriage or stillbirth is difficult to determine, and many experts believe there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to drugs in utero can cause a miscarriage or stillbirth. Because of this, prosecuting Buckhalter opens the door to investigating and prosecuting women for any number of other potential causes of a miscarriage or stillbirth, her lawyers argued in a filing to the state Supreme Court—”smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, exercising against doctor’s orders, or failing to follow advice regarding conditions such as obesity or hypertension.” Supreme Court Justice Leslie D. King also raised this question in the oral arguments last month: “Doctors say women should avoid herbal tea, things like unpasteurized cheese, lunch meats. Exactly what are the boundaries?”

The case in Mississippi is far from unique. There have already been a handful of instances where lawmakers have sought to criminalize miscarriages and other “unintentional terminations” of a pregnancy.

Most notable is the law proposed by a Republican who is currently his party’s nominee for attorney general in Virginia. Under the bill floated by State Sen. Mark Obenshain, women that failed to report their miscarriage to law enforcement within 24 hours would be charged with a “Class 1 misdemeanor” — a charge that carries up to one year in prison and a stiff fine.

From Think Progress:

If a woman in Virginia has a miscarriage without a doctor present, they must report it within 24 hours to the police or risk going to jail for a full year. At least, that’s what would have happened if a bill introduced by Virginia state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) had become law.

And yet, the Virginia Republican Party wants to make Obenshain into the state’s top prosecutor. This weekend, Virginia Republicans selected Obenshain as their nominee to replace tea party stalwart Ken Cuccinelli (R) as the state’s attorney general.

Under Obenshain’s bill, which was introduced in 2009,

“When a fetal death occurs without medical attendance upon the mother at or after the delivery or abortion, the mother or someone acting on her behalf shall, within 24 hours, report the fetal death, location of the remains, and identity of the mother to the local or state police or sheriff’s department of the city or county where the fetal death occurred. No one shall remove, destroy, or otherwise dispose of any remains without the express authorization of law-enforcement officials or the medical examiner. Any person violating the provisions of this subsection shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

Even more extreme was a law proposed — and quickly abandoned — in 2011 from a Georgia lawmaker  that would have treated most miscarriages and stillbirths as a “murderous” felony eligible for the death penalty.

May 292013
 

(New York Times photo)

A far more complex and confusing picture emerges on closer inspection of the festering controversy surrounding the treatment of grassroots conservative political groups by the IRS, with the agency admitting that at least one regional office singled out applicants for special tax exempt status that included conservative themes in their organization’s titles.

The incident has quickly become the “scandal” du jour for most Republicans and has led many to pin direct blame for the incident on President Obama, arguing that it is a sacred “right” for these groups to seek and attain a particular government benefit that allows them to raise secret and unlimited amounts of money for political campaigns and highly partisan causes.

Now there are new questions swirl over whether the targeted groups were innocent victims or blatantly operating in bad faith.

New evidence shows that many of the “Tea Party” groups demanding special tax breaks for their “social welfare” campaigns were in fact breaking federal statutes against engaging in overtly political activities by funneling cash they raised to candidates and partisan causes. And while the IRS may have been victimized by this grassroots game of subterfuge, the agency did have one major failure not that it was overzealous in grilling conservative groups, but that it ignored the far more serious breaches of tax-exempt law committed by larger organizations that collectively raised nearly one billion dollars.

A report published by the New York Times this week catalogs the stories behind the dozens of Tea Party or conservative activist groups that applied for tax exempt status but were stonewalled by delays from the IRS that lasted up to two years in some cases.

These groups and hundreds of others were in search of the coveted designation as a “501(c)(4),” a convoluted taxation subcategory popularized by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case that opened the door for unlimited and undisclosed political fundraising — but only by “outside” organizations officially unaffiliated with specific candidates and campaigns.

Bound by federal tax and election regulations to commit most of the money they raised through their tax exemption to “social welfare” endeavors, most of the conservative groups admittedly targeted by the IRS and investigated by the Times were found to have flouted the law and spent most or all of their funds on overtly political activities.

One local “Tea Party” outfit seeking an IRS exemption divulged to officials that there express purpose for raising unlimited money was to “defeat…President Barack Obama.”

When CVFC, a conservative veterans’ group in California, applied for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, its biggest expenditure that year was several thousand dollars in radio ads backing a Republican candidate for Congress.

The Wetumpka Tea Party, from Alabama, sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the “defeat of President Barack Obama” while the I.R.S. was weighing its application.

And the head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, whose application languished with the I.R.S. for more than two years, sent out e-mails to members about Mitt Romney campaign events and organized members to distribute Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign literature.

Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the I.R.S., saying they were among dozens of conservative groups unfairly targeted by the agency, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as the agency delayed decisions on their applications.

But a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.

Even admitting their blatantly partisan status, leaders of some conservative groups singled out by IRS officials complained about the extent of the agency’s prying into their donor lists, future plans and even print-outs of their websites.

But election law experts and former IRS agents say these steps are necessary given the rise in political tax-exempt applicants and the broad nature of the regulations the tax agency is being pressed to carry out in the wake of “Citizens United.” Many groups outside of the targeting case have already been deemed to have broken tax-exempt guidelines in the last two election cycles.

Faced with hundreds of independent organizations seeking a specialized government benefit once the realm of ordinary charities, the government likely had little choice but to use whatever means necessary to uncover the relevant information needed to decipher the intent of  these groups.

The I.R.S. is already separately reviewing roughly 300 tax-exempt groups that may have engaged in improper campaign activity in past years, according to agency planning documents. Some election lawyers said they believed a wave of lawsuits against the I.R.S. and intensifying Congressional criticism of its handling of applications were intended in part to derail those audits, giving political nonprofit organizations a freer hand during the 2014 campaign.

After the tax agency was denounced in recent weeks by President Obama, lawmakers and critics for what they described as improper scrutiny of at least 100 groups seeking I.R.S. recognition, The New York Times examined more than a dozen of the organizations, most of them organized as 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups under the tax code, or in some cases as 501(c)(3) charities. None ran major election advertising campaigns, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the main activity of a small number of big-spending tax-exempt groups that emerged as major players in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

But some organized volunteers, distributed pamphlets and held rallies leading up to the 2010 elections or the 2012 presidential election, as conservatives fought to turn out Mr. Obama.

……..

I.R.S. agents are obligated to determine whether a 501(c)(4) group is primarily promoting “social welfare.” While such groups are permitted some election involvement, it cannot be an organization’s primary activity. That judgment does not hinge strictly on the proportion of funds a group spends on campaign ads, but on an amorphous mix of facts and circumstances.

“If you have a thousand volunteer hours and only spend a dollar, but those volunteers are to help a particular candidate, that’s a problem,” Mr. Tobin said.

Agents may examine when and for how long a group advocates policy positions, in part to see whether those positions are associated with a specific candidate, which can be relevant to the group’s tax status, tax lawyers and former I.R.S. officials said.

Agents may look at what a group publishes in print or on a Web site, whether it provides funds to other organizations involved in elections or whether a group’s officers are also employed by political parties. They may also consider other public information, former officials and tax experts said, though they are required to ask the organization to provide those materials or comment on them before the information can be included in an application review.

Whether or not the IRS or the Obama administration engaged in a specific and targeted campaign of intimidation against right-wing political organizations may be endlessly debatable. What cannot be disputed is the near-crisis that the IRS found itself in after the “Citizens United” case opened the “floodgates” of political spending.

Ordained by the Supreme Court to raise as much campaign cash as they could collect, hundreds and eventually thousands of “independent” political groups sprang up virtually overnight, seeking to take advantage of the loopholes and exemptions that are at the disposal of those with a so-called “501(c)(4) designation. The IRS division devoted to investigating the propriety of applications for non-exempt status, once a relatively sleepy assignment, became the focus of a political cash bonanza starting in 2010, leaving it badly undermanned and without adequate funding.

The IRS was overwhelmed with a wave of new applications — most from conservative-leaning groups and backed by wealthy Republicans — seeking that special status to raise unlimited and undisclosed money for political means.

Making the situation worse was that this was not the typical job of the agency; they were given an “impossible task.” Instead of collecting taxes or weeding out charities, the IRS had been placed on the front lines of a frenzied — and very expensive — partisan battleground, one that ended up playing a major role in two important national elections.

This was the obvious consequence of an ad-hoc campaign finance system created in the aftermath of “Citizens United,” with little thought put into how a massive fundraising system that popped up almost instantaneously would be regulated.

The IRS didn’t make this mess because its employees are stupid or because they have a political vendetta. It’s because they’ve been given an impossible task: figure out which organizations have missions that are “primarily political” — and come up with definitions for “primarily” and “political” that are neither vague nor politically charged.

Note, when we talk about these groups as “tax-exempt” all that means is they don’t pay tax on their own income. A 501(c)4 group can’t accept tax-deductible donations because it’s not a charity (those are 501(c)3 groups). Instead, a 501(c)4 is a “social welfare” organization: That is, it is supposed to produce benefits that are broadly enjoyed, rather than producing private profits for its funders. By law, (c)4 groups are free to lobby without limitation and also may engage in electoral activities so long as that is not their primary purpose. The main reason political donors want to channel their funds through (c)4s rather than other independent expenditure vehicles isn’t a tax advantage; it’s that (c)4 organizations are not required to disclose their donors.

Since 2010, when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision led to an explosion in applications to form such groups, the IRS has tried to thread (this) needle and failed completely. Their first idea was to look for key words like “Tea Party” in organization names. Realizing this would show unfair political bias, they switched to focusing on statements about orientation (“political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government”).

Accusations of politically-motivated targeting and widespread policy of intimidation and bias against conservatives and “Tea Party” supporters also fall`away when more closely considered, largely because if such a presidential vendetta did exist during the 2010 and 2012 elections, it was a disastrous disappointment

Most importantly, the supposed political activists within the IRS or any part of the Obama administration failed miserably if the goal of a few targeted delays of right-wing tax exempt applications was to shut off conservative election spending during the 2012 midterm campaign and leading up to 2012.

$1 billion was spent in total by outside groups on the 2012 election, with a quarter of that coming directly from the loophole-ridden “social welfare non-profits” given the federal government’s blessing to raise and unlimited amount of cash from undisclosed donors for the sole purpose of political advertising, not the “welfare” of greater society.

“Social welfare” organizations like Karl Rove’s Crossroads “non-profit charity” drove much of the spending on ads during last year’s election, all aided and abetted by the IRS. Supposed to eschew “overtly political” language in how it spent the secret and unlimited cash it raised, Rove and other groups were hardly shy in pronouncing their preference for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

More specifically, tens of millions of dollars were raised and spent by conservative non-profit groups given tax-exempt status after 2010, supposedly when the scandalous anti-Tea Party operation commenced. The money collected by these groups far outstripped cash raised by the handful of liberal-leaning activists that received 501c(4) status.

Conservative nonprofits that received tax-exempt status since the beginning of 2010 and also filed election spending reports with the Federal Election Commission overwhelmed liberal groups in terms of money spent on politics, an analysis of Internal Revenue Service and FEC records shows.

Of the 21 organizations that received rulings from the IRS after January 1, 2010, and filed FEC reports in 2010 or 2012, 13 were conservative. They outspent the liberal groups in that category by a factor of nearly 34-to-1, the Center for Responsive Politics analysis shows.

By far the largest driver of the disparity was American Action Network, whose $30.6 million in spending reported to the FEC in 2010 and 2012 made up 94 percent of the conservative total. However, even without American Action Network, spending by conservative groups approved after 2010 was nearly quadruple that of liberal groups receiving exempt status in the same period.

Outdated language allows those on all sides of the political aisle to take advantage of the system and funnel millions of dollars into American politics with virtually no oversight and with the unprecedented benefit of concealing its funding sources. By its very  nature the existing hodgepodge of campaign finance regulations and tax exemptions, balancing the jurisdictions of the FEC and the IRS in a confused nowhere-land, foments myriad opportunitis for mistakes or malfeasance.

Not that the groups at the center of this debate weren’t taking advantage of such a muddled regulatory scenario. Crossroads and Priorities USA, the two largest conservative and liberal 501(c)(4) “non-profits,” were specifically “created for the purpose of hiding donors.”

These two groups, along with several other large conservative-leaning organizations that played significant roles in the billion-dollar election spending spree in 2012, were largely given a pass by IRS officials for their “overtly” political operations.

Government regulators actually ignored repeated complaints lodged by prominent liberal activists in the middle of the presidential campaign against big conservative “non-profits” spending millions on behalf of Republican candidates like GOP  nominee Mitt Romney.

Rather than being hyper-sensitive to all right-wing political activity under their jurisdiction, federal tax officials were likely guilty of selective justice, ignoring the largest and most effective groups while focusing on the dozens of smaller organizations with “Tea Party” sensibilities.

Over the last two years, government watchdog groups filed more than a dozen complaints with the Internal Revenue Service seeking inquiries into whether large nonprofit organizations like those founded by the Republican political operative Karl Rove and former Obama administration aides had violated their tax-exempt status by spending tens of millions of dollars on political advertising.

The I.R.S. never responded.

……..

The I.R.S. has done little to regulate a flood of political spending by larger groups — like Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, co-founded by Mr. Rove, and Priorities USA, with close ties to President Obama — as well as Republican leaders in Congress and other elected officials. And an agency that is supposed to stay as far away from partisan politics as possible has been left in charge — almost by accident — of regulating a huge amount of election spending.

“We’ve complained about a few big fish and we’ve heard nothing from the I.R.S.,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which filed many of the complaints with the agency. “We would far rather see scrutiny of these big fish — the groups that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections — than to see the resources spent on hundreds of small groups that appeared to spend very little on elections.”

The only conclusion to draw from the current “scandal” is that rather than being overzealous in applying the laws colored with partisan motivation, federal regulators at the IRS and FEC have done virtually nothing to enforce the existing rules that are meant to apply to outside political groups. These outfits, almost all conservative, have been incredibly successful in beating the system meant to prevent them from raising unfettered and unlimited amounts of money and using it solely for political operations.

May 282013
 

With roadway deaths on the rise for the first time in several years, federal safety officials are calling for a substantial drop in the blood-alcohol level used to determine drunk drivers. 

But despite the national epidemic of drunk driving deaths and widespread public awareness of the issue, some interest groups and lawmakers are vigorously fighting the proposed changes, which have no legal weight until acted on by Congress or individual states. Some in the beverage industry say the recommended federal reforms are “ludicrous” because stricter blood-alcohol limits could cut down on their business.

Meeting earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a call to lower the current national blood-alcohol standard of .08 to a stricter limit of .05. The NTSB noted that the United States lags behind most other developed countries in combating drunk driving.

States should lower the definition of drunken driving to a blood-alcohol reading of no more than .05 percent, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesdayy, saying the U.S. is too tolerant of impairment behind the wheel.

The safety board at a hearing in Washington said the U.S. is behind other countries, including most of Europe, in having a threshold for drunken driving of .08 in all 50 U.S. states.

The risk of a crash at a .05 reading is half what it is at .08, the board said.

“It’s frustrating that with the education and advocacy, with laws and enforcement and with the many processes set up to deal with the problem of drinking and driving, that we are still seeing so many lives lost,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at the hearing.

About one-third of U.S. traffic deaths are related to alcohol, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Though any federal agency’s recommendations on tightening drunk-driving standards are not binding and don’t represent any official policy, groups with an interest in preserving the current national blood-alcohol law have launched an aggressive campaign to oppose any sweeping changes.

May 242013
 

(KOMO News)

Renewed attention is being given to the state of the nation’s roads and bridges following a terrifying incident outside of Seattle on Thursday, with critics arguing the event proves the danger in putting off crucial fixes to America’s crumbling public infrastructure.

A highway bridge carrying lanes of Interstate 5 over the Skagit River in Washington state crumbled late Thursday night, sending cars and their trapped occupants into the water below. Initial blame is being leveled at an oversize truck that may have struck a portion of the structure’s girders and destabilized the bridge section that subsequently fell apart.

Miraculously, the accident left no fatalities and only minor injuries to the three motorists that happened to be driving on the bridge when it collapsed. Emergency officials say they have accounted for everyone believed to be in the area at the time of the disaster, and that everyone is safe.

The safety of all victims assured, focus has shifted to the transportation nightmare that the bridge failure is already causing. I-5 is a major roadway in the greater Seattle metropolitan area and carries vital commercial and commuter traffic. Thursday’s event has “totally disrupted” the highway corridor and will likely do so for weeks or months as plans for replacing the bridge are finalized.

An Interstate 5 bridge over a river collapsed north of Seattle Thursday evening, dumping two vehicles into the water and sparking a rescue effort by boats and divers as three injured people were pulled from the chilly waterway.

Authorities said it appeared nobody was killed in the bridge failure that raised the question about the safety of aging spans and cut off the main route between Seattle and Canada.

“We don’t think anyone else went into the water,” said Marcus Deyerin, a spokesman for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team. “At this point we’re optimistic.”

A man and a woman were reported in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries in the emergency room at Skagit Valley Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Kari Ranten said. Another man was reported in stable condition at United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley, hospital CEO Greg Reed said. He said he didn’t know whether the man would be admitted.

Survivor Dan Sligh and his wife were driving their pickup truck when he said the bridge disappeared before them in a “big puff of dust.”

…….

Traffic along the heavily-travelled route could be impacted for some time.

“The I-5 corridor is totally disrupted,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, who went to the scene Thursday night.

He said work has already started to design detour, but state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson asked people to avoid I-5 in the area for the next several days.

Being that bridges crumbling under travelers on major highways is an unsettling prospect, authorities have quickly moved to determine the exact reason the Skagit span came down.

Most signs pointed to a single “oversize” truck that clipped a section of the girders holding the bridge together, sending a considerable chunk of it immediately crashing into the river. So far, nothing points directly to an independent structural failure due to disrepair or neglect. However, several factors shed light on how delays and reduced funding for infrastructure projects such as bridge repairs did play a significant role in Thursday’s near-tragedy.

The Skagit span was built in 1955. This means that, in addition to operational age, the span lacked modern safety features and construction techniques that would have likely prevented such a catastrophic mass failure when struck by a vehicle.

The Skagit River Bridge wasn’t particularly worrisome to state engineers. Structural inspections showed its condition to be average. But bridges of its generation, circa 1955, often were designed in a manner described today as fracture-critical — meaning a failure in a key location can ruin an entire span.

Which is apparently what happened Thursday night.

Officials believe an oversized truck traveling south on Interstate 5 hit the bridge and triggered the collapse, said Bart Treece, state Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman. One of the bridge’s four spans fell into the water.

Though officials insist there was nothing “bad” about this particular bridge, its age and archaic construction make it possible that “complete collapse” would occur with the failure of any single component.

“It doesn’t imply anything bad about the bridge. It just means that if a certain component fails, it can lead to the complete collapse of the bridge,” said Jugesh Kapur, former head of bridges and structures for the DOT.

Kapur said a truck hitting a vertical or diagonal part of the truss certainly is capable of causing a failure. Guardrails or similar barriers are supposed to prevent strikes.

But besides its basic age and how it was put together, there were actually a considerable number of safety warnings about this specific bridge and detailed reports of its considerable “deficiencies.”

The Skagit River I-5 bridge was labeled “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” in various federal and state reports — one of them more than twenty years ago. While having little meaning to the general public, these terms are important distinctions for architects and public officials charged with overseeing roads and bridges.

As early as 1992, the bridge that fell apart on Thursday was deemed “structurally deficient” and in immediate need of at least $8.2 million in repairs. Two years later, it was deemed “functionally obsolete” because of its age and not “adequate for modern traffic.

The Skagit bridge was rated “structurally deficient” in 1992, needing $8.3 million in fixes, according to a report by uglybridges.com, which cites the National Bridge Inventory data for that year. There was erosion on the stream banks below, and serious road-deck damage or wear. By 1994, the federal database listed the bridge as “functionally obsolete,” an improved rating but an indication it still wasn’t adequate for modern traffic.

The “sufficiency rating” of the Skagit bridge was also quite poor; a 57 rating out of a possible 100. Most alarmingly, that score actually bested nearly 800 of Washington’s other highway bridge structures, which were given a “C-” grade just days before Thursday’s incident by the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

In other words, the bridge that fell down was actually in better shape than most of Washington State’s bridges or even other bridges along the same I-5 corridor.

The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.

According to a 2012 Skagit County Public Works Department, 42 of the county’s 108 bridges that are 50 years or older. The document says eight of the bridges are more than 70 years old and two are over 80.

Washington state was given a C in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 infrastructure report card and a C- when it came to the state’s bridges. The group said more than a quarter of Washington’s 7,840 bridges are considered structurally deficient of functionally obsolete.

Images of the Skagit accident outside of Seattle may have proven familiar to anyone that remembers a similar, though considerably more tragic, bridge collapse just six years ago. That was in 2007, when an interstate bridge span in downtown Minneapolis gave way and sent dozens of cars into a river, killing 13 and injuring hundreds.

The Minnesota disaster eventually was deemed preventable after information was subsequently revealed showing that span was likewise “structurally deficient” and decades behind in necessary repairs.

Inadequate and potentially dangerous bridges can be found all across the country, meaning tens of millions of Americans likely travel over them every day. The most recent National Bridge Inventory is a sobering document that shows nearly 90,000 bridges in the United States are officially listed as “obsolete,” and more than 70,000 are “structurally deficient” and in need of immediate repair.

An almost unimaginable backlog of bridge repairs and vital fixes has piled up in every corner of the nation. The same civil engineer group that gave a poor rating to Washington state’s bridge infrastructure gave an only slightly better “C+” grade to the entire US network of bridges. They estimate that it would require spending $21 billion every year just to fix the backlog of dangerous bridges in the country.

It doesn’t take a policy expert to understand that not only has such funding not been directed to bridges or any manner of national infrastructure in recent years, but that any future substantive action to combat the documented crisis is almost guaranteed not to happen.

Calculations have determined that it will take nearly three trillion dollars in federal spending by 2020 — many times what the government invests now — just to prevent the worst and most disastrous consequences from an aging and fragile national infrastructure. Without such a “critically important” investment, severe and long-lasting economic impacts will begin to be felt by Americans,.

Ignoring a crumbling infrastructure system means jobs will be lost, prices for almost every consumer item will go up, and the daily commute of millions of Americans in major population centers will become even moe unbearable than it curently is.

“Infrastructure is the most important thing you never think about,” said Jim Hoecker, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Infrastructure is a collection of critically important strategic assets, and we generally take them for granted.”

If the problem is not addressed, power outages will become more frequent, prices at the supermarket and department store will inch up, traffic will detour around bad bridges, household incomes will drop and millions of people will lose their jobs.

The challenge of rebuilding a post-World War II infrastructure at the end of its natural life — roads, bridges, the electrical grid, water and sewer systems, ports — has been well documented by myriad experts. One of the most meticulous accounts has come in a series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which delved into each failing system to calculate not just the cost of restoration but the economic and personal price of doing too little or nothing at all.

The exclamation point on the “Failure to Act” reports came Tuesday in an ASCE paper: An investment of $2.7 trillion is needed by 2020; likely funding available, $1.6 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office says combined federal, state and local spending for roads and bridges now amounts to about $160 billion.

The federal government and Congress appropriate nothing close to the amount experts declare is necessary to repair and sustain America’s vast and economically vital infrastructure network. Even worse has been the prevalence of deep cuts by states to funds and programs meant to keep roads and bridges functioning and safe.

This is a combination that has led to a cratering of spending on public construction projects, with a reduction of more than $50 billion since President Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009. And not since at least 1993 has  spending on infrastructure a smaller percentage of overall economic output.

In raw dollars, the decline is obvious. From a peak of about $325 billion in March 2009, the monthly amount has plummeted to $258 billion — a big number to upgrade your house, but less so for the entire country.

 But when you compare spending to the entire economic output of the country — how much of what we make that’s spent on public construction — the picture becomes more stark. We haven’t spent this little of our economic output on public construction since before 1993.

Many of the cuts can be attributed to the overall economic stagnation and tighter budgets wrought by the recession. But other factors are at play, including an inability by President Obama to get results on his repeated efforts to boost investment in infrastructure by posturing it as a job-creation program meant to employ millions of out-of-work Americans.

But the president’s lobbying efforts produced few results and largely focused on “shovel-ready” proposals selected for the number of jobs they would create, not based on safety factors.

But nothing has hastened the decline of public investment than the rise of the Tea Party, Republican control of the House, and an overall growing aversion of federal authority. Since the president took office, Congress has allocated even less money than usual for infrastructure projects even as the need for such funds grew exponentially.

Just as in 2007 after the deadly Minneapolis disaster, no one expects the fallout from this week’s Washington State bridge collapse to move the political needle on infrastructure repairs. 

It’s almost as if Washington has seen this movie before: a bridge collapses, groups decry the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and Congress does nothing.

Like the tragic Minneapolis, Minn. bridge collapse in 2007 that came before it, today’s Mount Vernon, Washington collapse is unlikely to spur Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into fixing roads and bridges.

The political inertia in Washington around transportation funding and projects hasn’t eased despite President Obama’s nearly constant push for additional funding.

In February, Obama renewed his nearly annual call for $50 billion in additional transportation and infrastructure spending as part of his 2014 budget request. But Republicans said the proposal amounted to an unfunded wish list.

To be sure, Congress did pass a highway transportation funding bill last year, but infrastructure spending advocates say it’s simply not enough. The bill allocated just enough money to keep transportation spending at status quo levels and it only funded projects for two years, as opposed to the usual five or six.

So how much is enough?

For roads and bridges alone, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that every year $190 billion would need to be infused into the system compared to the $103 billion currently being spent.

When you take into consideration all of the country’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that about $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 to fix the country’s mounting problems.

 

May 242013
 

Three years after Congress passed what supporters claimed were unprecedented federal regulations meant to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse, lobbyists for banks and Wall Street firms have more sway than ever on Capitol Hill.

House Financial Services Committee chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling

Republicans and some Democrats have targeted the package passed in 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, for intense criticism. Conservatives decry the string of comprehensive new regulations as onerous and guilty of stunting economic growth.

Financial industry interests have also complained, flooding lawmakers who want to rewrite Dodd-Frank with cash in the last two election cycles and gaining new influence when Republicans seized control of the House.

This political alliance has begun paying handsome dividends for financial companies as legislators hostile to the new regulations are willing to go to considerable lengths to make sure the industries covered by the oversight are given a chance to craft reforms more to their liking.

The New York Times reports on Friday that House Republicans working on bills to repeal Dodd-Frank and loosen myriad other financial regulations have allowed banking lobbyists to draft much of the legislation themselves. Three-quarters of the language in one bill that easily passed the House Financial Services Committee had been written by lobbyists for Citigroup. Industry officioals defend such a practice as “common” in Washington.

Wall Street and big banks, once reviled as the driving forces of the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession, have seen their reputations significantly polished in the nation’s capital. Banks and their lobbyists now enjoy a “resurgent influence” with business-friendly Republicans and election-wary Democrats in Congress.

Bank lobbyists are not leaving it to lawmakers to draft legislation that softens financial regulations. Instead, the lobbyists are helping to write it themselves.

One bill that sailed through the House Financial Services Committee this month — over the objections of the Treasury Department — was essentially Citigroup’s, according to e-mails reviewed by The New York Times. The bill would exempt broad swathes of trades from new regulation.

In a sign of Wall Street’s resurgent influence in Washington, Citigroup’s recommendations were reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill. Two crucial paragraphs, prepared by Citigroup in conjunction with other Wall Street banks, were copied nearly word for word. (Lawmakers changed two words to make them plural.)

The lobbying campaign shows how, three years after Congress passed the most comprehensive overhaul of regulation since the Depression, Wall Street is finding Washington a friendlier place.

The cordial relations now include a growing number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate, whose support the banks need if they want to roll back parts of the 2010 financial overhaul, known as Dodd-Frank.

This legislative push is a second front, with Wall Street’s other battle being waged against regulators who are drafting detailed rules allowing them to enforce the law.

The payoff for both sides in the equation is incredibly attractive. Financial companies have been able to ingratiate themselves with lawmakers already receptive to their calls for fewer regulations by spending huge sums on lavish lobbying events and bankrolling scores of congressional candidates.

And as its lobbying campaign steps up, the financial industry has doubled its already considerable giving to political causes. The lawmakers who this month supported the bills championed by Wall Street received twice as much in contributions from financial institutions compared with those who opposed them, according to an analysis of campaign finance records performed by MapLight, a nonprofit group.

In recent weeks, Wall Street groups also held fund-raisers for lawmakers who co-sponsored the bills. At one dinner Wednesday night, corporate executives and lobbyists paid up to $2,500 to dine in a private room of a Greek restaurant just blocks from the Capitol with Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, a co-sponsor of the bill championed by Citigroup.

Industry officials acknowledged that they played a role in drafting the legislation, but argued that the practice was common in Washington. Some of the changes, they say, have gained wide support, including from Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. The changes, they added, were in an effort to reach a compromise over the bills, not to undermine Dodd-Frank.

It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the chairman of the House committee in charge of financial industry oversight and at the center of granting direct access by lobbyists to the drafting of important regulatory bills has been wined and dined by some of the nation’s leading banks.

According to Pro Publica, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling met with several banking executives at an exclusive Utah ski resort — complete with a celebrity chef to cater the event — only weeks after attaining chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee. That is the same committee now discovered to be letting lobbyists for Citigroup and other banks draft legislation intended to gut federal financial regulations.

The posh party for Hensarling’s campaign PAC may not have breached any election laws, but it presented an “invaluable opportunity” for financial companies and their lobbyists.

In January, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, ascended to the powerful chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee. Six weeks later, campaign finance filings and interviews show, Hensarling was joined by representatives of the banking industry for a ski vacation fundraiser at a posh Park City, Utah, resort.

The congressman’s political action committee held the fundraiser at the St. Regis Deer Valley, the “Ritz-Carlton of ski resorts”known for its “white-glove service” and for its restaurant by superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

There’s no evidence the fundraiser broke any campaign finance rules. But a ski getaway with Hensarling, whose committee oversees both Wall Street and its regulators, is an invaluable opportunity for industry lobbyists.

May 232013
 

Historic progress on efforts in Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws and offer a path to citizenship to undocumented individuals and families could come at the expense of what many consider t be a basic recognition of gay rights.

Working from a blueprint compiled by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” moderate Democrats and Republican lawmakers that have long championed changes to immigration policy, the Senate on Tuesday passed a final immigration bill out of a key committee in a move that triggers a full vote on the measure. Senators on the Judiciary Committee approved the sweeping immigration legislation in a stunning bipartisan 13-5 vote, with important Republicans joining with Democrats in support.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and most Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups cheered the Senate vote as a monumental step towards a more human national immigration policy and one that could bring millions of undocumented men, women and children out of the shadows and help them to eventually attain citizenship.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan “gang of eight” immigration bill on Tuesday in a 13 to 5 vote after a marathon final day of markup that stretched into the evening.

All Democrats on the committee, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and gang of eight Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), voted in favor of the bill, which will now go to the Senate floor. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted against the bill out of committee, said he would support allowing it to move forward for debate — rather than joining a filibuster — once on the Senate floor. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was also a “no” vote, said if it had been between his vote and moving the bill to the Senate floor, he would have voted in favor.

The crowd in the room erupted into applause when the final vote tally was read, rising to their feet and chanting “Yes we can!” then “Si se puede!”

Democrats seemed equally pleased to vote the bill out of committee.

“The dysfunction in our current immigration system affects all of us and it is long past time for reform,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said before the bill’s passage. “I hope that our history, our values, and our decency can inspire us finally to take action. We need an immigration system that lives up to American values and helps write the next great chapter in American history by reinvigorating our economy and enriching our communities.

Though getting through the Judiciary Committee marks a historic victory for supporters of immigration reform, The accolades and celebrations following Tuesday’s vote could prove premature. That the bill nearly died in the Democratic-controlled Senate is an indication of the extreme jeopardy any immigration-related legislation is in upon arrival in the House, a chamber now dominated by hardcore conservative Republicans.

Tea Party favorites had already tried to scuttle debate on immigration in the committee stage, with GOP Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul leading the opposition to any measure that included citizenship for undocumented individuals or other government benefits for immigrants that entered the country “illegally.” This position was in stark contrast to other Republicans like Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham who actively worked with their Democratic foes in crafting the “Gang of Eight” package.

Conservatives are prepared to make a last stand in the House, threatening to kill any immigration deal and widen the rift that has developed between the GOP”s conservative base and its more moderate establishment. One leading Tea Party supporter in the House spoke for many of his colleagues when he declared that there is “no bill that I can support.”

With the Senate landmark immigration bill set to go to the full chamber floor for a vote, attention is now shifting to expected heated debate over the version in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Senate leaders received praise for coming to a bipartisan consensus on key issues Tuesday night — although one involved the very controversial decision to withdraw an amendment including same-sex couples — thus paving the way for a panel to approve the measure 13-5.

But the immigration plan, which is backed by President Obama and many establishment Republicans, appears headed for a showdown with wary House conservatives.

…….

It’s unclear whether the Republican-run House will embrace the Senate proposal, which would create a pathway to citizenship for many who entered the country illegally. Chances are slim.

“There’s no bill I’ve seen that I can support,” Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, said in an interview Tuesday. When his constituents hear explanations of the proposed pathway to citizenship, he said, “they omit that paragraph and pencil in ‘amnesty.’”

Such uncertainty in the House and the necessity of winning a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate has forced immigration proponents to make a number of concessions to those conservatives willing to work on the issue.

Putting together this shaky coalition of Republicans needed to pass a broader bill has had one extremely important consequence for a large group of immigrants, as well as more obtuse ramifications for millions of other Americans . The final language of the Senate package specifically excluded any official recognition of same-sex marriages for immigration purposes, a nod to the right that has left gay activists livid at being abandoned to improve the prospects of a bill that very likely will die in the House regardless.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy had offered an amendment to the larger immigration package that would have created legal recognition of the immigration rights of gay couples and same-sex marriages.Such a mandate would directly impact the nearly 30,000 LGBT couples currently unable to unite in the United States under existing immigration procedures.

Although the existing ban on recognizing immigrant gay marriages or civil unions could soon be struck down by the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, gay rights groups had sought to circumvent the uncertainty of waiting for a legal ruling by enshrining equal rights and protections in any congressional immigration legislation.

Leahy was forced to pull his provision on gay couples with a “heavy heart” after public opposition from key Republicans caused Democrats in the Senate to express their unwillingness to vote for it if it meant the entire bill could be stalled. Flipping on a path to citizenship for the undocumented is part of the GOP’s effort to rebrand the party as more tolerant and inclusive, but that policy shift still does not extend to LGBT immigrants or citizens.

Conservative lawmakers claimed acknowledging gay rights in the immigration law would be a “bridge too far” for them after risking Tea Party backlash for backing the broader measure.

Sen. Patrick Leahy withdrew his proposed amendment to the comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have recognized the marriages of same-sex couples for immigration purposes on Tuesday night, after several Democratic members of the committee stated that they would not be supporting it.

A little past 7 p.m., Leahy said, “It is with a heavy heart … I will withhold the Leahy Amendment 7 at this point.”

Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, offered the amendment a half-hour earlier, saying, “I don’t want to be the senator who asks Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country.”

He added, “Discriminating against people based on who they love is a travesty,” noting that he wanted to hear from members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators about why they didn’t include protections for gay couples in the initial bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham went first, saying he opposed the inclusion of gay couples’ protections in the bill, despite noting his respect for Leahy’s “passion” is support of marriage equality.

“If you redefine marriage for immigration purposes [by the amendment], the bill would fall apart because the coalition would fall apart,” Graham said. “It would be a bridge too far.”

Democrats immediately sought to comfort the gay community by promising to resurrect the provision at a later date, possibly as a standalone measure. But such a bill would be unlikely to win GOP support in the Senate on its own, and would face certain defeat in the House.

Republican lawmakers supportive of immigration reform had warned their Democratic colleagues that any push to include gay rights in immigration legislation would drive off conservative votes for the bill. And religious groups lobbying for an immigration bill had likewise issued threats that they would attack any package that featured protections for gays despite breaking with their ideological allies and advocating for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“Immigration is hard enough. Let’s not go down the road of redefining marriage,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters last month, adding that the language “is not going to be in the bill.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-S.C.) echoed that point to Politico. “It will virtually guarantee that it won’t pass,” he said. “This issue is a difficult enough issue as it is. I respect everyone’s views on it. But ultimately, if that issue is injected into this bill, the bill will fail and the coalition that helped put it together will fall apart.”

And as Politico’s Carrie Budoff-Brown points out, the provision might also provoke a host of evangelical and Catholic leaders who have endorsed the “Gang of Eight” effort. Support from religious groups has been viewed by advocates as crucial to winning the backing of GOP lawmakers and approval from conservative voters.

Reaction from the LGBT community has been swift. Activists have voiced outrage at the premise put forward by Democrats that protections for gay couples was not important enough to risk  scuttling the entire immigration bil, and that Republicans were using the gay couple issue to hold the entire package hostage.

Gay rights groups charged that Democrats “don’t have the courage or the spine” to take on conservatives that remain opposed to any federal recognition of same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Several key gay rights groups did not accept that rationale, arguing that the issue was a matter of principle and fairness for the estimated 30,000 binational same-sex couples who remain unable to unite in the country. They are currently barred from receiving a spousal visa under the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“Today it became clear that our so-called ‘friends’ don’t have the courage or the spine to stand up for what’s right,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, co-director of the advocacy group GetEqual. He added that Democratic lawmakers “are content to buy into the false choice that Republicans created — holding a sorely needed immigration bill hostage in order to cement inequality into law.”

……

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin denounced the four Republicans in the bipartisan immigration group — Graham and Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).

“It is deplorable that a small number of senators have been able to stand in the way of progress for lesbian and gay couples torn apart by discriminatory laws,” Griffin said. “We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote.”

 

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