The Brief Life of Bipartisanship and the Return of the Wingnuts

Hey, remember how the modest two year budget deal hammered out by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray was a sign that insane partisanship was on its way out? Yeah, you can stop shoveling dirt in gridlock's grave, because Republican hostage-taking isn't all that very dead yet.

Wall Street Journal: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) signaled that Republicans would not raise the debt ceiling next year without some sort of concessions from Democrats, saying lawmakers were still crafting their strategy.

“We, as a caucus, along with our Senate counterparts, are going to meet and discuss what it is we want to get out of the debt limit,” Mr. Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. “We don’t want ‘nothing’ out of the debt limit. We’re going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

The U.S. government spends more money than it brings in through taxes, which means the Treasury Department has to borrow money by issuing debt. The government can only borrow money up to a certain level - called the debt ceiling – which is set by Congress. In October, lawmakers agreed to “suspend” the debt limit until Feb. 7, 2014. The White House has said it will no longer negotiate with Republicans on conditions for raising the debt limit, but many Republicans have said they will only vote to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for budget changes like spending cuts.

Is it an empty threat? Maybe. Democrats and the White House have adopted a "no negotiating with hostage-takers" policy, making it clear that only clean debt ceiling bills will be considered. They can do this because the previous debt ceiling fiasco and the more recent government shutdown have firmly established the GOP as the usual suspects to rounded up when that particular brand of mayhem goes down.

But the fact is that the far right are not at all happy with the budget deal and it may be that GOP leadership -- or just Ryan himself -- sees the need to throw red meat to the 'baggers.The Tea Party may have lost a lot of clout by demanding suicidal moves from the Republican Party, but they're still going to have an outsized influence on the party's primaries. These TP candidates may not stand much of a chance of making a real dent in incumbents, but that doesn't mean that party establishment types don't have to take them seriously. Those 'bagger candidates will run ads and those ads will need to be answered. Money will have to be spent -- money candidates would much rather spend in the general election against their Democratic rivals.

And, of course, it wouldn't be a Republican primary without candidates trying to out-wingnut each other. This is probably the bigger problem for GOP candidates -- the primary pulls them way over to the right and when they try a Mitt Romney-like shift back toward the middle in the general, they find it's just too far to go. You can't have sound-bite after sound-bite promising all-out war against Democratic policies, only to later contradict them all by promising to work toward greater unity in Washington. Yet this is what Republicans in more competitive general election fights will be forced to do.

And Paul Ryan's preemptive hostage-taking is the party already being dragged right. He knows this sort of talk doesn't fly with anyone at all other than the teabaggers, but he figures the damage done by betraying America and sleeping with the enemy hammering out a pitifully limited and unambitious budget deal with Patty Murray is a wound that needs first aid pronto.

This is yet another corner the GOP have painted themselves into; if they ignore the outraged base and insist -- as they have been -- that the Ryan-Murray deal is how Washington is supposed to work, the 'baggers completely lose it and all hell eventually breaks loose. If they cave into the base and crash the economy with a doomed debt ceiling fight, they deliver yet another self-inflicted wound to a party already dying a demographic death of a thousand cuts. And worst of all, it's hard to see how they could've avoided it. All the traps the GOP snare themselves in these days were actually set long ago, when they decided to use rightwing media to outrage Republican voters over things that aren't actually real. Now those voters demand that Republicans respond to those fantasy problems in the fantasy world, rather than the real problems in this world. The party has completely lost control of their messaging and now their BS is in control of them. What about the birth certificate? What about all the plots to bring communism to America? Disarming patriots and sending them to FEMA camps? The UN takeover? What about BENGHAZI!!?

So how does Ryan get out of this particular self-laid bear trap? I'm not really sure. And I kind of doubt he knows. Which means there could be a debt limit debacle in the cards. It seems doubtful -- Republicans know they're bluffing and they know Democrats will call their bluff -- but what else is there?

The sin of getting government to work in even the most modest way demands an atonement. And Paul Ryan isn't eager to lie down on that sacrificial altar himself.


[photo by Gage Skidmore]


Busting the Myth of the Victorious Gun Lobby

You're familiar with the narrative by now. One year after the Sandy Hook Massacre, where gunman Adam Lanza took the lives of twenty young children and six adults, Americans are no safer from gun violence than they were before. Worse, because conservatives are reactionaries and their first impulse is to respond to liberal arguments with contrarian dickishness, legislation has been passed in more Republican areas that actually loosen gun laws. The narrative is, as one Washington Post blogger put it, that "gun control is losing, badly."

But the chart above is from that very blogger's post. A Gallup poll shows that the appetite for stricter gun control is still there. It is, in fact, quite easily the most popular opinion, beating the "no change" crowd by more than 10 points and soaring over those who want to weaken gun laws by 36 points. Further, gun ownership is down from an all-time high of 51% of respondents to an anemic 37% -- with a particularly steep decline since Sandy Hook. If we could have a national referendum on gun safety right now, strengthening gun laws would win in a landslide.

Mitt Romney wishes he could've been "losing" like this. He would've been losing all the way to the White House.
Further pouring cold water on the media's victory celebration for the gun lobby is Mother Jones' Mark Follman, who finds that the push for stricter gun restrictions has largely been a success, despite the media narrative portraying the opposite.

[N]o, the gun lobby did not "win." The real action after Newtown was not in the nation's capital—it was in most statehouses around the country, where no fewer than 114 bills were signed into law, aiming in both political directions. America has warred over its deep-rooted gun culture on and off for decades, and Newtown set off a major mobilization on both sides.

Determining how that battle changed the terrain in 2013 isn't just a matter of the total number of laws passed (some of which contain multiple measures), but also the types of activity and swaths of population they affect. Unsurprisingly, the redder states mostly continued to deregulate firearms, while bluer coastal states—and a more politically split Colorado—moved aggressively to tighten restrictions.

America did pass more laws loosening gun laws than tightening them, but those laws were passed where fewer people actually live. The fact of the matter is that, in terms of actual populations covered by laws, gun safety advocates have quietly been winning big. Comparing the gun lobby's 75 wins to gun safety advocates' 56 is extremely misleading. Passing legislation is like running a business -- you try to compete where it's easiest win. And where it's easiest to win is most places other than Washington.

Right now, that means state by state. If it comes down to it, it can go county by county, city by city, town by town. The failure of congress to toughen background checks was not the final fight -- and it wasn't the final fight because it didn't change anyone's mind.

"If you’re a suburban mom outside of Philadelphia who’s angry about this issue, just because it wasn’t on the floor of the Senate doesn’t mean you woke up and stopped caring about it," Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action, a group formed from Pres. Obama's reelection campaign, told the Washington Post.

Right now, the gun lobby and conservatives seem to believe they've won and put the gun control issue behind them. They are wrong.



Is Paul Ryan's Deal Something Paul Ryan Can Support?

There are three things I can pretty much guarantee happened this morning; the sun came up, newspapers were delivered to doorsteps, and Paul Ryan wetted his finger and stuck it out the window, to see which way the Tea Party winds were blowing. After working out a budget deal that takes a little bit of the bite out of the sequester, Rep. Ryan is likely measuring the pulse of his colleagues in his chamber -- and finding that pulse is a little more agitated by his deal than he might've hoped.

Over at Business Insider, Brett LoGiurato has an article up, the headline of which says it all: "Conservatives Are Starting To Freak Out About The Budget Deal." The Heritage Foundation doesn't like it, the Tea Party doesn't like it... In short, the base hates it. A man who still reportedly harbors presidential ambitions, Paul Ryan has always tried to walk a fine line between seeming to be the moderate Republicans who can win a general election and the Tea Party extremist who can win Republican primaries. And in attempting this balancing act, he has largely failed. If there's on person you can count on to oppose a deal swung by Paul Ryan, it's Paul Ryan. If the 'baggers hate it, he's going to hate it. Because, let's face it, winning the GOP primary is the first step in winning the White House. So it's first things first; make sure the rightwing extremists are happy, then try to figure out how to explain it to everyone else later.

And the extremists are unhappy.

Brian Beutler: ...19 conservatives didn’t exactly say the deal should go down. But in a letter to House GOP leadership, they basically opposed the terms of the negotiation and pressed Speaker John Boehner to bring legislation to the floor that would undercut it.

“[W]e encourage you to allow a vote as soon as practicable on a full-year ‘clean CR’ funding bill at the levels established in law by the Budget Control Act,” the letter reads. “Democrats are not interested in solving the problems created by the sequester: they are only interested in using the threat of the cuts as leverage to increase spending across the board, to increase our national debt, and to raise taxes and fees.”

All of which brings up the specter of another government shutdown. I know the conventional wisdom is that Republicans have learned their lesson from the last one, but that argument fails on two important points:

  • Republicans don't really do lesson learning. If they did, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would not be the GOP leaders in their respective chambers today.
  • It ignores the fact that Republicans haven't really paid much of a price for the shutdown. Sure, their numbers crashed right after it. But the media turned their attention to the bungled Healthcare.gov rollout, knocking GOP shutdown stories off the front page. The religious extremist Tea Party types no doubt see the hand of God -- or at least the power of prayer -- in this, shielding them from the public's wrath and visiting it upon their most bitter enemy, Pres. Obama. If it happened once, it will probably happen again.
I'll admit, the second point is offered with tongue in cheek -- but barely. I have no doubt that a big chunk of the 19 signatories believe this or something similar -- especially Dominionist messiah Ted Cruz. And I have as little doubt that there are plenty in the House caucus that would be persuaded by this argument -- and plenty more who will go along just to pretend to be persuaded. The difference between a religious nutjob and someone who's only pretending to be a religious nutjob is pretty much nonexistent in a practical sense. And the 'baggers who aren't religious extremists are all phonies who pretend to be to win elections.

So don't be surprised if this big bipartisan deal fizzles out under pressure from the House Wingnut Caucus. And don't be surprised if you see Paul Ryan turning the screws to up that pressure.


[photo by Gage Skidmore]


With Plastic Gun Ban, Congress Votes to Kill a Cherished Gun Lobby Argument

Bad news for the people who think the Second Amendment term "well-regulated" means "not to be regulated." A long-standing gun regulation will be formally renewed at the White House today, proving that even the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives sees allowing certain weapons to be legally owned would be ridiculously and needlessly pro-criminal.

CNN: The Senate voted unanimously on Monday to renew a 10-year ban on guns that cannot be picked up by metal detectors commonly found in airports, court houses and government buildings.

The law, which prohibits firearms made mostly of plastic, was set to expire at day's end.

It had drawn renewed attention recently due to its pending expiration and the advent of mainly non-metalic handguns produced by 3-D printers.

The House acted last week, and now the measure goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In a world where bottles of shampoo are perceived as a serious danger of terrorism, an undetectable firearm ban was really a no-brainer. And the current guns are undetectable, despite a steel fig leaf designed to create a loophole in law. "Currently, plastic guns made using 3-D printers comply with the law by inserting a removable metal block," CNN reports. "That has led to worries plastic guns could pass through metal detectors without being flagged by simply removing the block."

Of course, not everyone's happy. While the NRA has remained wisely mum on this common sense and noncontroversial ban, the more strident and extremist gun nuts haven't been as quiet.

Bloomberg News: Mike Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, a gun-advocacy group in Springfield, Virginia, said the technology is now widely available, making a plastic-gun ban unnecessary.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Hammond said.

Individuals who intend to break the law will not be deterred by a ban on plastic materials, he said. “It’s stupid to think it would make any difference.”

This "people will break the law anyway" argument has always struck me as the most logically weak of all gun lobby arguments -- so much so that it always catches me off guard when someone actually makes it to me. I find myself wondering if they're making it because they think I'm dumb and hope to trick me or if it's the fact that they're so dumb they can't see the obvious flaw.

Hammond's argument can be made against any banned substance or controlled item, of course, from methamphetamine to improvised explosive devices. Laws against these things don't stop people from making them or using them, so by the gun lobby's argument, these things shouldn't be illegal at all. People should be allowed to cook and sell meth even in school zones and wear suicide bomb vests on passenger flights. The law doesn't make it impossible to do these things, so it's somehow absurd to suggest making them illegal.

In fact, if we apply this reasoning universally, then rape, murder, and theft should all be totally legal, for the same reasons. The only laws congress should ever pass are those that are impossible to break -- no going faster than the speed of light! -- and, of course, those laws would be completely unnecessary.

What laws banning substances and items do are to take dangerous people -- along with their contraband -- off the street and put them behind bars. When we find out someone's running a meth manufacturing operation, we can shut it down. When someone's planning to blow up a plane with an IUD, we can move in and stop them. These things happen all the time, proving the "law is powerless to stop it" argument is a bunch of fatalistic horsecrap. If we can't possibly stop people from breaking the law, how is it that we manage to do it over and over and over?

And the big blow to the pro-guns-everywhere crowd in this law is that it proves that even many teabaggers in congress don't really believe this bad argument. Here we have a law banning a specific gun, passed because congress doesn't want people to be able to sneak a gun through a metal detector -- and obviously they believe that law can be used to prevent that. A vote against renewing the ban would be ridiculously pro-criminal, pro-terrorist, and pro-assassin. A vote for this ban is a vote for the fact that gun restrictions can reduce gun crimes.

In short, it's a vote against the "gun laws can't stop criminals" argument.

Unfortunately, the House GOP decided to cast their votes in the most cowardly way possible -- by a voice vote, so names wouldn't be attached to votes. The only way to know if a rep voted for or against the ban is to wait for them to tell you. And a lot of them won't, in large part because that vote proves one of their favorite arguments against gun control is a lie and that they don't actually believe it.

So again we return to that question: when a Republican congress critter makes the "laws can't stop criminals" argument, are they lying or stupid? Given the way the plastic gun ban turned out, the odds lean toward "lying."


[photo via Statesman.com]


The GOP's Obamacare Problem

Anti-Obamacare protesters
It's being called the relaunch of Healthcare.gov. But the fact that 100,000 people signed up in October -- while the headlines were filled with stories about how the website wasn't working -- suggests that "relaunch" might not be the most accurate description. However, one aspect that's never actually gotten off the ground before was the effort to get Americans to sign up in large numbers. Since the website was hampered by capacity problems, an awareness campaign would've been counterproductive. In fact, until recently, the administration was discouraging organizations from running recruitment campaigns of their own.

That's about to change.

Politico: President Barack Obama will launch a coordinated campaign Tuesday by the White House, congressional Democrats and their outside allies to return attention to why the Affordable Care Act passed in the first place.

After two months of intense coverage of the botched HealthCare.gov rollout, the president will host a White House event kicking off a three-week drive to refocus the public on the law’s benefits, senior administration officials told POLITICO.

The White House will take the lead in emphasizing a different benefit each day until the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for Jan. 1 coverage. The daily message will be amplified through press events and social media by Democratic members of Congress, the Democratic National Committee, congressional campaign committees and advocacy organizations, officials said.

And the Obamacare "trainwreck" that (according to pundits) dooms their 2014 prospects? Democrats are planning to run on it, not from it.

"Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill say that in order to get back  on offense on Obamacare, they have to draw a two-sided picture: Democrats  delivering benefits on one side, and Republicans trying to deny them on the  other," the report goes on. "That, one party operative said, is what polling says will help them win."

Of course, Republicans have given up on repealing the Affordable Care Act, but that's not something they're able to admit. The failure of the government shutdown to produce anything at all for Republicans has created a waves of anger and fingerpointing, resulting in destructive primary challenges across the country. One longtime Republican operative, Richard Viguerie, predicted that the GOP primaries will be an "absolute bloodbath."

"We gotta give up on Obamacare!" will not be a winning message during Tea Party-driven bloodbath. They'll have to try to out-crazy each other on the issue. That's a real problem for them in the general election. Since Republicans have no alternative to Obamacare, they wind up advocating the unsustainable pre-ACA status quo by default. And it may be that the only thing more unpopular than the reformed healthcare system is the unreformed one. Republicans would be better off putting this issue behind them. In reality, they have -- but reality doesn't play with the base, so they're forced to pretend that they haven't.

Greg Sargent argues that "folks are overlooking the possibility that no matter how unpopular the law, the Republican stance on health care may prove a liability, too. The basic Dem gamble is that disapproval of Obamacare does not automatically translate into zero sum political gains for Republicans, and that voters will grasp that one side is trying to solve our health care problems, while the other is trying to sabotage all solutions while advancing no constructive answers of their own. Polling shows disapproval of the law does not translate into majority support for GOP attempts to repeal or sabotage it, and Dems think this will only harden as more people enjoy the law’s benefits."

And even if they don't improve, if things stay exactly the way they are now, Republicans lose the Obamacare issue. Since most people don't want repeal -- and didn't while even the most critical Healthcare.gov stories blared from the media -- Republicans are already on a bad footing on the issue. And they have been for months, having become a mostly single-issue party with over forty bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act passed in the House.

The Affordable Care Act won't be a winning issue for the GOP. Whether it will be for Democrats remains to be seen. But if anyone has the upper hand on the issue right now, it's not Republicans.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


America Needs a Raise

Sign mocking Walmart's low wages
For me at least, the most interesting story over the holiday weekend was Black Friday mayhem. Running the search term "Walmart Police" through Google News gained me this little screenshot, which I think sums up the spirit of the day pretty well -- people shot, stabbed, and beaten over prices that are really no better than those in any other sale throughout the year. False scarcity and media hype about "can't-miss" deals can drive people to do things they may not be very proud of in the sober light of Cyber Monday. Our consumerist culture is by nature predatory, with the corporate predators tricking the prey into thinking they're predators too -- which leads to predictable outcomes as consumers compete to "hunt bargains."

Another type of corporate predation was also in the news, as Walmart workers staged Black Friday demonstrations to protest low wages. They're starvation wages, really, which have Walmart employees running food drives for each other and relying on food stamps to survive. What's surprising to me is how little bleed-over there is from one story to the other, despite the fact that they're clearly related. Not only do Walmart workers earn far, far too little for their labor, but the Black Friday chaos stories demonstrate just how lousy a working environment the company's willing to tolerate in order to sell someone a toaster oven. Anyone who can read about the Black Friday frenzies across the nation and think that people who have to deal with that don't deserve a raise... Well, they've got a real interesting definition of "deserve."

And of course, the myth that low wage workers have undemanding, cushy jobs is exposed as BS.

All of which brings us to Paul Krugman's call to raise the minimum wage -- and more.

The last few decades have been tough for many American workers, but especially hard on those employed in retail trade — a category that includes both the sales clerks at your local Walmart and the staff at your local McDonald’s. Despite the lingering effects of the financial crisis, America is a much richer country than it was 40 years ago. But the inflation-adjusted wages of nonsupervisory workers in retail trade — who weren’t particularly well paid to begin with — have fallen almost 30 percent since 1973.<

So can anything be done to help these workers, many of whom depend on food stamps — if they can get them — to feed their families, and who depend on Medicaid — again, if they can get it — to provide essential health care? Yes. We can preserve and expand food stamps, not slash the program the way Republicans want. We can make health reform work, despite right-wing efforts to undermine the program.

And we can raise the minimum wage.

A realistic minimum wage and a working social safety net. What a shocking idea. Conservatives love bootstrap stories, but the math -- like all rightwing math -- simply doesn't work. Sure, a worker can work hard and become a supervisor, manager, or more, but how many middle management employees do conservatives think a company needs? Not everyone can follow that path -- even if everyone at a particular store is deserving. People are going to remain in low wage positions by necessity. It's simply unavoidable. Every employee at any given Walmart can't be a floor manager. Someone has to be on the operating end of a mop. In any case, living on the minimum wage shouldn't be a punishment for failing to live up to Republican expectations.

And raising the minimum wage is good for everyone.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects. And we’re talking about a lot of people. Early this year the Economic Policy Institute estimated that an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 from its current $7.25 would benefit 30 million workers. Most would benefit directly, because they are currently earning less than $10.10 an hour, but others would benefit indirectly, because their pay is in effect pegged to the minimum — for example, fast-food store managers who are paid slightly (but only slightly) more than the workers they manage.

This is the principle of "everybody does better when everybody does better" -- something obvious to most people, but shocking and anti-intuitive to conservatives. And that get's back to the idea of punishment. Conservatives, at heart, believe that everyone is evil. Therefore conservative ideas are always about punishment. If you punish women for having sex by calling them "sluts," they won't have abortions. If you punish schools for underperforming by pulling funding. If you punish the poor for their poverty by saddling them with an unlivable minimum wage, while cutting programs that would help them -- like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare -- then they'll just decide it's too hard to be poor and stop it.

This doesn't work at all and why should it? It's what the status quo was before the minimum wage or support programs were put in place. Want a glimpse of how well the Republican approach to poverty works? Pick up a Dickens novel. All those crazy, big gummint ideas exist to fix the failures of a society that lived by what would be modern conservative social Darwinist rules. That's how we know that conservative economic principles would fail -- we've already tried it. For centuries. The poor had plenty of time to get sick of poverty and knock it off. Somehow, they never really managed. Poverty was rampant, income levels were pretty much fixed, and the phrase "middle class" was incomprehensible babble.

People are being underpaid to work in terrible conditions. History proves that doing something about that helps everyone. And that doing nothing will just make things progressively worse.


[photo by Brave New Films]