Indiana “religious freedom” law needs more than clarification

You’ve almost got to feel sorry for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Almost.

After being universally mocked for a disastrous Sunday morning interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos at which Pence tried — and failed, miserably — to defend his state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Pence has become desperate to stem the flow of negative publicity and the flood of business opportunities leaving or threatening to leave Indiana. He held a widely covered news conference about plans to “clarify” the law and to show that Hoosiers aren’t haters.

He didn’t succeed.

Pence tried to shift the blame for blowback about RFRA onto the media for its “mischaracterization” of the law and for the “smear” jobs of reporting about the new law nationwide. He tried to come off as Mr. Nice Guy Hoosier, saying multiple times that he doesn’t accept discrimination. (“I went to Selma!”) He kept claiming that Indiana’s law was “exactly” like the federal RFRA law and laws on the books in other states. He emphatically said that no business in Indiana “will be allowed to discriminate against anyone.”

Too bad that’s not what the Indiana law says.

Indiana’s law differs in some significant ways from the federal law and other state laws. According to an online story in The Atlantic, Indiana’s RFRA “explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to ‘the free exercise of religion.’ ” Any for-profit business. Two state RFRAs explicitly exclude for-profit businesses. In Indiana, however, there already has been anecdotal evidence of a private business refusing service. And the law doesn’t even take effect until July 1.

The Indiana RFRA also contains language letting a business’s right of “free exercise” be the defense in a civil suit brought by anyone claiming discrimination. So if a bakery didn’t want to make a wedding cake for Jim and Steve, with two grooms on top, the business can claim that its religious beliefs gave it the right to do so.

The governor also tried to use the U.S. Supreme Court’s ill-considered decision in the Hobby Lobby case as a justification. Thanks to that decision, in which private businesses are allowed to circumvent the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraceptive coverage to female employees, many conservatives now are saying, in essence, that Hobby Lobby gives them the right to discriminate. This law just spells it out explicitly. And by all means, Governor, when you’re getting negative publicity, find a way to pin it on President Obama.

Pence tried to appear reasonable, saying that the Indiana Legislature was working on language to “clarify” the law. Yet when Indiana Democrats tried to include language in the bill with a non-discrimination provision, Republicans voted it down. So we’re supposed to believe that the Legislature will now pass a new bill or add language to RFRA specifically guaranteeing LGBT rights?

And again: If the Indiana law doesn’t allow discrimination in the first place, why does it need clarifying? Several reporters tried to pin Pence down about proposed language in legislative clarification, but he refused to offer any specifics.

The Indianapolis Star, the state’s largest newspaper, took the unprecedented step of publishing a front-page editorial calling for a change in the law. “The consequences will only get worse if our state leaders delay in fixing the deep mess created,” the editorial said. “Half steps will not be enough. Half steps will not undo the damage. Only bold action — action that sends an unmistakable message to the world that our state will not tolerate discrimination against any of its citizens — will be enough to reverse the damage. Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly need to enact a state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Prospective GOP candidates for president in 2016 have been tripping over themselves to defend Indiana’s new law. They obviously feel the need to solidify their conservative credentials with the party faithful, just as Pence did in signing the law.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul went so far as to say that he doesn’t “believe” in gay rights. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush claimed that “there are many cases where people acting on their conscience have been castigated by the government.” Why don’t we see examples of those “cases” whenever anyone brings up this defense?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sounded — well, confused. “Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that’s a consensus view in America,” Rubio told Fox News. “The flip side is, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?” So you can only discriminate if you’re a photographer, but not a restaurant?

Conservatives fear that if the Supreme Court rules that marriage equality should be the law of the land in all 50 states, as justices may do this summer, photographers, bakers, and others in the wedding business won’t have legal protection. So they’re trying to insert it into state law.

Pence had been discussed as a possible GOP hopeful for 2016, but I think it’s fair to say that his chances are now close to zero. When someone sounds as clueless as he does, he’s out of the running. Hoosiers could decide that he doesn’t even have it together enough to lead the state again when he faces them next year.

As The Atlantic story put it, “sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.”

The new bill in the Hoosier state is a perfectly ugly example. It seems that the famed “Hoosier Hospitality” doesn’t need to extend to everyone. Maybe the Indiana General Assembly will prove me wrong and follow the advice of the Star. But I’m not holding my breath.


No evidence Indiana needed anti-gay discrimination law

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed into law a bill that will let Hoosiers discriminate against anyone they want to in the name of “religious freedom.” The bill clearly was aimed at the LGBT community.

Pence did not hold a public signing ceremony for the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”; instead, the bill was signed behind closed doors. He later tweeted a photo where he was surrounded by religious leaders.

The new law will prohibit a government entity from “burdening” a person’s religious beliefs, with almost no exceptions. It gives state businesses the right to not provide service to gay and lesbian customers based on “religious freedom.” But why was it so important to pass this law?

In a radio interview with a conservative radio host, Pence was asked if there had been anything in Indiana to necessitate this anti-gay bill. “I’m not aware of cases and controversies,” Pence told the host.

So just as in non-existent cases of voter fraud, now we have non-existent cases of someone’s religion coming under attack because he or she was forced to serve a gay person.

Indiana could face some economic blowback. A Christian denomination with historic ties to Indiana, the Disciples of Christ, has threatened to boycott the state, calling the law “contrary to the values of our faith.” Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of business tech company Salesforce, declared on Twitter that his company would boycott the state altogether.

The huge gaming convention Gen Con has threatened to withdraw its convention from the Indiana Convention Center. Last year’s convention in Indiana attracted some 56,000 people to the state and generated some $50 million in revenue, said a letter from the group’s founder.

The NCAA announced that it was “especially concerned” about the new law, but that concern wasn’t enough to make it change the Indiana venue of the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the Final Four basketball games the weekend of April 4 and 5. Of course, no change could be made at such a late date, but future dates could be in doubt. The NCAA, which has its headquarters in Indianapolis, released a statement:

“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” the statement read, according to a story in USA Today. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

Pence is among a growing list of Republicans said to be considering a run in the 2016 presidential race. I guess he thought he needed to establish his anti-gay credentials early in the game.

I, for one, won’t be making a trip to Indiana anytime soon. Funny, but my faith tells me not to give profits to bigots — or to the people who vote for them.

UPDATE: Numerous groups and business are threatening to pull business — indeed, some already have — out of Indiana. So Pence says he’s asking the Indiana Legislature to “clarify” the intent of the law. But he’s not asking for a specific exclusion of the LGBT community. So what else needs “clarifying”?


Obamacare working well five years later

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law.

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law.

On the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act, the health care law is meeting many of its goals. Millions more people have health insurance. The health care spending curve is bending, meaning costs are not going up as fast as they used to. Insurance premiums are being held in check. Jobs in the health care sector continue to grow. And the law’s overall price tag is lower than expected.

So despite the technical problems on the ACA website during its truly awful roll-out in the fall of 2013, the law is a success, and it’s helping people.

Even if Republicans fail to acknowledge the truth.

There are many stories marking the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing his greatest accomplishment into law. The White House is — understandably — touting some facts and figures about the law that spell out its successes clearly. Here are a few examples from the White House blog. Over five years:

  •  More than 16 million Americans have gained health insurance coverage.
  • 9.4 million people on Medicare saved more than $15 billion on prescriptions.
  • 105 million people no longer have lifetime limits on coverage.
  • Zero death panels were created.

At the same time, parents can keep their children on their health insurance plans until age 26. There are no more coverage denials for pre-existing health conditions.

Mother Jones has its own story and its own chart. Some more facts and figures:

  • The rate of uninsured adults has dropped to 12.3 percent.
  • 57 percent of insurance exchange customers were previously uninsured.
  • The Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of ACA subsidies is $209 billion less than projected. That’s 20 percent less than the original estimate.

There are many more examples. Yet Republicans in Congress have tried to repeal the ACA more than 50 times. And five years later, despite many promises of an alternative, they have yet to offer a plan that would do anything to help people gain and keep health care coverage. A plan to do anything at all, when it comes down to it. They just repeat the line that the law is a “disaster,” even when their statements fly in the face of reality.

The biggest threat to the ACA right now is the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, King v. Burwell. The basis of the lawsuit challenges the subsidies for people who got health insurance through the federal exchange rather than state exchanges.The suit claims the law didn’t intend to award subsidies for policies bought outside state exchanges, despite statements from those who wrote the law to the contrary.

If the conservatives on the court prevail, 13.4 million people could lose the subsidies they are receiving right now on their insurance. Some 8.2 million people could lose their insurance all together.

All because of what basically was a typo in the law.

Today Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced that he is running for president. He, of course, wants to repeal Obamacare, something he mentioned when he declared his candidacy at Liberty University in Virginia, promising the law’s repeal in 2017. There was speculation that he chose this day to kick off his campaign just to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the ACA. Of course, Cruz shows only marginal support in polls asking about the GOP field (not that those mean much at this date anyway). And his only real accomplishment since he became a senator was to lead the charge to shut down the government over Obamacare.

He may not be too serious in his candidacy, though. If you go to, you end up at the White House’s health care website,


Downton Abbey final season: Molesley becomes prime minister

What will become of them all?

What will become of them all?

For Downton-philes — and I count myself among them — the report that the upcoming sixth season will be the last for Downton Abbey comes as disappointing news. And as silly as Julian Fellowes has made some of the plot lines — and boy, have some of them been silly — we’ll still miss tuning in on Sunday nights to hear Violet’s latest quips and to see what swain is trying to win Mary’s heart. And to see what new fashions the women are sporting.

So we’re taking a break from politics and media today to offer some plot possibilities for Season 6. I know the show is already in the midst of filming, but Mr. Fellowes, if you read this, feel free to lift whatever you want. It could make the show more fun than it already is. I should probably include the words “SPOILER ALERT” here, but if you’ve read this far, you already know what’s happening. Anyway, my “predictions”:

Mary and Anna form a detective agency and finally solve the odious Mr. Green’s murder (the guilty party turns out to be Violet’s awful new lady’s maid, Denker). They leave Scotland Yard in the dust.

Thomas goes to Hollywood and becomes a swashbuckling film star. He also finds that it’s easier to meet eligible men in Hollywood.

Carson marries Mrs. Hughes but returns to the stage as a song-and-dance man. Remember that on the set, many actors have reported that the entire cast and crew have been wowed by the “dance moves” of the actor playing Carter, Jim Carson. I think he’s just itching to put that on screen, and I, for one, would pay money to see it.

Isobel makes several medical discovery breakthroughs but is denied the Nobel, because the committee tends not to award women. Remember that Rosalind Franklin didn’t get to share the prize for the DNA double helix model, even though she did as much as work as Francis Crick and James Watson.

The stock market is about to crash, so Robert loses the family fortune (AGAIN), showing his lack of investing prowess. He is forced to turn Downton into an amusement park, featuring attractions such as minstrels and Morris dancers. It fails.

To made ends meet, Violet and Cora open a hat shop, unloading the ladies’ vast collections. Depression or no Depression, Brits always wear hats. No one wears hats like the Brits.

Mrs. Patmore opens a tea shoppe. She also publishes a book of recipes with added sage advice heard on the show such as “Sympathy won’t butter the parsnips.” Other examples are “Crabbiness overcooks the carrots,” “Silliness makes a souffle fall flat,” and “Peeking into the oven early ruins a proper sponge.” (Hey, that one is actually true!)

Molesley becomes prime minister. Well, why not?

Daisy becomes a spy and ends up working for MI6 during WWII. She’s learning math now and turns out to be a whiz. She eventually joins the team to help Alan Turing break the Enigma code.

And Edith becomes a nun after Marigold decides she would rather live with the farmers. Meaning Edith never gets to wear this again:

Edith’s wedding gown. Check out that embroidery.

Yeah, I took a picture of that last summer when I went to see the costume collection on display at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Delaware. I told you I was a Downton-phile.

How Iran nuclear deal may affect falling oil prices

A drop in the worldwide price of oil might mean more than just lower prices at the pump. It could be pushing Iranians closer to a pact to limit the country’s nuclear power. And that may push oil prices — and thus gas prices — even lower.

A deal between Iran and six Western countries that would limit Iran’s nuclear capability also would ease economic sanctions against Iran. That eventually could translate into half a million barrels or more in Iranian crude oil added daily to a glutted global market, says an online story on The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch.

Last winter, some were claiming that lower oil prices were putting pressure on Iran to strike such an agreement. A report by Roubini Global Economics and Securing America’s Future Energy, a nonpartisan group led by business and military leaders, said the worldwide oil glut “means the West doesn’t need Iranian oil and has more leverage to negotiate,” according to a story from McClatchy DC News.

“For the first time since the United States and other world powers confronted Iran over its nuclear program in 2006, today’s oil market conditions allow [the negotiators] to work toward the best possible deal without risking oil price volatility and damaging consequences for the global economy,” said Sam Ori, the executive vice president of the energy group, the McClatchy story reported.

Crude oil prices are at a six-year low, now below $43 a barrel. Sanctions against Iran have limited how much the country can sell on the world market. According to a story on CNN, Iran exports only 1.3 million barrels a day now, compared with 2.5 million barrels a day in mid-2012. Sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy; inflation has soared, and youth unemployment stands at over 20 percent.

For full economic recovery, Iran must expand oil sales and hope for oil prices of $130 a barrel, according to Deutsche Bank, the CNN story reported. If sanctions are lifted, Iran can start selling, but not at prices that would help its economy right away. Still, oil is Iran’s biggest commodity, and it must start selling more — at whatever price — to recover.

“They are in a Catch-22. The more they start exporting, the more the price of oil is going to go down,” said Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University, according to the CNN story.

Some analysts are skeptical that Iran could return to full exporting capacity any time soon. According to a story in the Financial Post, Iran’s oil minister claims that the country could increase exports by 500,000 barrels per day immediately after sanctions relief, rising to four million barrels per day in three months. But Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, calls Iran’s claims “overly optimistic, even if a final deal and full sanctions relief are put in place,” the Financial Post story said.

OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, says it is counting on China and countries throughout the Middle East to drive up demand for oil — and thus the price, too.

U.S. shale oil is more expensive because it is more expensive to produce. Analysts have long speculated that high oil production by OPEC nations and the drop in oil prices are an attempt to limit U.S. oil production. But as oil gets cheaper, there’s something else that’s dropping worldwide — oil storage capacity. Adding more oil to a glutted market doesn’t help if there’s nowhere to store it.

There is a self-imposed deadline of the end of March to hammer out an overall framework for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability. The parties then would have until July 1 to reach a final pact.

And despite a letter signed by 47 Republican senators intended to sabotage the talks, Americans seem to think negotiating a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear reach is a good idea. According to a CNN/ORC poll, nearly 70 percent of people in the U.S. are in favor of direct diplomatic negotiations — a sentiment that crosses party lines, with 77 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of independents in favor of the talks.

Most observers, including the White House, put the chances of an agreement at 50-50. There are still disagreements over the scale of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the pace of sanctions relief, and the extent of nuclear site inspections, according to another CNN story.

Another possible wrench in the works is the attempt in the Senate to pass a bill that would provide for congressional review and oversight of any agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program.

In other words, stay tuned.



Is the tide turning against ISIS? How can we figure it out?

Depending on your news sources (and I’m using the term loosely), you may have noticed a downturn in coverage of the Islamic State.

Just a week ago, the group known as ISIS or ISIL seemed to be taking over the entire Middle East. Within days, the news shifted that the self-styled caliphate might be falling apart.

The first frightening reports were that the terrorist group Boko Haram, based in Nigeria, has thrown in its lot with ISIS. This “proved” that ISIS was growing in power, taking over an increasing stretch of land, and there was a weekend of scary headlines, with maps in bright colors and thick arrows pointing outward. ISIS was expanding, we were told.

Days later, however, the Washington Post ran a story that ISIS was “fraying from within.”

“Reports of rising tensions between foreign and local fighters, aggressive and increasingly unsuccessful attempts to recruit local citizens for the front lines, and a growing incidence of guerrilla attacks against Islamic State targets suggest the militants are struggling to sustain their carefully cultivated image as a fearsome fighting force drawing Muslims together under the umbrella of a utopian Islamic state,” the story said.

The Boko Haram threat may be turning out to be a threat in name only. A column in The Guardian called Boko Haram’s claim “a superficial propaganda coup.” After all, within the last few weeks, Nigerian government forces finally started to claim an upper hand against Boko Haram. “Now military forces from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have been taking back towns lost to Boko Haram,” said a report from the BBC.

All news sources seem to be in agreement about the fading influence of Boko Haram — except, of course, Fox “News,” which had a story claiming that the new alignment gives Boko Haram “unprecedented power, resources, and reach.”

What about other ISIS news? Some reports say that Iraqi fighters — no doubt different from the ones who famously cut and ran after first dumping their U.S.-supplied weapons at the first threat from ISIS — are making gains near Tikrit and making plans to retake Mosul. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters also are said to have pushed ISIS forces back in Kirkuk.

Even there, however, the news is muddled. On the same day, a headline from USA Today claimed that ISIS is near collapse in Tikrit. A New York Times story says that ISIS is maintaining a hold in Tikrit as the Iraqi forces are on pause. A story from Al Jazeera asks, “Can ISIL be defeated in Tikrit?” and calls victory there crucial. The story also points out that much of the military support for the Iraqi forces is coming from Iran and being run by Shi’ite militias.

And to top it all off, Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and a Middle East expert, says in a new post that the Sunni/Shi’ite divide could make the any success in Tikrit a “Pyrrric victory.”

So when reporters can’t get in close — no embedded journalists with these forces — I guess you can take your pick which story to believe.

Part of the shift in coverage away from ISIS also may be due to Republicans’ emphasis that Iran now is the biggest threat in the region. Nothing has changed there, of course. Iran is the same country it was months ago. But if the ISIS threat is, indeed, lessening, the GOP needs a new bogeyman to scare people.

So 47 GOP senators signed an ill-considered letter insisting that Iranian leaders should disregard any agreement that might be worked out between Iran and the United States. Of course, the talks going on in Switzerland about Iran’s nuclear program involve several other countries, too, but details apparently aren’t important to the 47 traitors “patriots” in the Senate.

After news of the letter broke, some Republican senators tried to backtrack in several laughable ways. Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz), claimed that senators were trying to get out of town ahead of a coming snowstorm. Sen. Rand Paul (R, Ky.) claimed that he signed the letter designed to sabotage negotiations between Iran and other diplomats to “strengthen President Obama’s hand.” Talk about unclear on the concept.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R, Ark.), who wrote the original bit of tomfoolery, says he has “no regrets” about the letter. After all, he said ominously on CBS’ Face the Nation, the Iranian threat is serious because “They already control Tehran.” The geographically challenged senator apparently is under the impression that governments should not be in charge of their own capitals. Perhaps he thinks Mississippi or Louisiana should be in charge of Arkansas’ capital of Little Rock.

I recently attended a two-part series on Islam and ISIS taught by a professor of Islamic studies. During a Q&A session, I asked him the best way to get news from the region, since U.S. news coverage has been so shallow and sensationalistic, especially from cable news channels.

“The only way to really understand it,” he said, “is to go there yourself.”

That probably won’t be happening anytime soon, if ever, for me or for millions of Americans. So we’ll have to muddle through coverage of ISIS and the Middle East the best we can.

GOP’s letter to Iran: Treason or just stupid?

Republicans are being excoriated across the country — and rightly so — for sending a letter to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” trying to sabotage in advance any deal President Obama might make with Iranians on limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

I’m sure “Tehran Tom” Cotton of Arkansas and the other 46 GOP senators who signed the ill-fated letter thought they were pulling a fast one on the president, pointing out to Iran that Obama is a short-timer now, while they’ll be in the Senate for time immemorial. But their stunt is not going over well.

According to a story in Politico, the next religious ruler in Iran could “reject a deal just as easily as the next U.S. president.”

“The next ayatollah who becomes supreme leader of Iran could do exactly the same thing — and many signs are that he is going to be more of a hard-liner. Ironically, opponents of a nuclear deal in Washington could well be contributing to this outcome by creating an atmosphere of mistrust in Tehran that only consolidates the power of the conservatives there,” the Politico story says.

Create an atmosphere of mistrust? The GOP?

Foreign policy experts in the U.S. also concluded that the Republican letter is unhelpful, unprofessional, and unprecedented, according to a story in the Washington Post.

“If you are a country in the Middle East or Asia relying on Washington, this raises questions about America’s predictability,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who served in the George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush administrations, according to the Post story. “I hear this all the time. I just know it makes others around the world more uncomfortable and contributes to a more dangerous and disorderly world.”

Those views were echoed by former Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (“an unfortunate venture”) and Phil Zelikow, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (“It is never a good idea for elected leaders to give foreigners, and especially foreign enemies, a formal invitation to join our domestic arguments”).

The growing controversy and backlash over the letter has become the political story of the day, unless you count the brouhaha over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account when she was secretary of state. Email-ghazi, if you will. Or, as some are calling it, the 2015 Political Reporter Full Employment Act.

Some of the signers are having second thoughts. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who famously sang “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” during the 2008 campaign, is now admitting that the letter might not have been the most effective response. “Maybe that wasn’t the best way to do that,” he said on Fox News, still insisting that it was important to tell Iran that the Senate has a role to play.

Well, sure it does. It’s called cooperation and consultation — words that seem to have permanently disappeared from the minds of congressional Republicans.

“TRAITORS!” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News with pictures of some of the GOP senators. “The senators who signed the letter should be ashamed,” said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Has Congress gone crazy?” asked the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Some even suggest that the senators violated the Logan Act by negotiating with foreign leaders. The Logan Act, enacted in 1799, says that “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.” Pretty hard to make that stick for half the Senate.

In a 1936 ruling on a case involving the Logan Act, the U.S. Supreme Court spelled out who can talk for the United States — and it ain’t Congress. Justice George Sutherland wrote: “The President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it.”

I guess the ill-fated invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t enough to undermine foreign policy. Of course, that seems to be backfiring; Bibi’s sinking in the polls.

Still, Tehran Tom and the rest don’t really care. They know anything they do that is anti-Obama plays well to the crazies back home. One Arkansas Republican even thinks the letter proves that Tehran Tom is presidential material; he wants to change state law to allow candidates to run for president and the House or Senate at the same time, hoping for a Cotton 2020 candidacy.

Apparently, Republicans also think it will be a fundraising bonanza. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is already sending letters to prospective donors touting his vote. Some of the lesser lights in the 2016 GOP presidential race, such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, no doubt in a desperate bid for attention and relevancy, say that they endorse the letter and would love to sign it. Except no one asked them.

Some GOP aides who (understandably!) chose to remain anonymous, even claimed that the letter was a “cheeky” reminder of the Senate’s prerogatives. “The administration has no sense of humor when it comes to how weakly they have been handling these negotiations,” said a top GOP Senate aide.

Sense of humor? No, there’s nothing funny about trying to undercut the commander in chief. Treason? No. Stupid? Yes. Childish? Absolutely. Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Tim Kaine summed it up nicely:

“The question is this — it’s a serious one: Is the Senate capable of tackling challenging national security questions in a mature and responsible way?”

Let’s hear it for the grownups. Who, apparently, don’t make up the majority of Republican senators in the U.S. Senate.

Best way to honor Obama’s historic Selma speech: Vote

An equally historic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years later.

An equally historic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years later.

Every once in a while, someone utters a phrase or asks a question that jolts you into reality. And, we hope, into action.

President Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., was an eloquent and stirring tribute to what is best about America. It’s already being called his “I have a dream” speech, and deservedly so. But anyone who listened to it (and if you haven’t, watch and listen to it online, or read the transcript; it’s more than worth your time) knows that besides praising those who paved the way and paid the price in blood for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Obama asked America for something more. He asked us all to vote.

“If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples,” he said. “Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?”

What is our excuse today for not voting? Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) literally got his skull cracked 50 years ago as he tried to cross that bridge 50 years ago in a protest against voting restrictions. He’s a reason to vote.

The Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister and civil rights activist working for desegregation in Boston, was fatally beaten in Selma 50 years ago on March 9 and died two days later. He answered the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King after Bloody Sunday to come to Selma to show the world that people cared, and he paid for his courage with his life. He’s a reason to vote, too. (Reeb is the subject of the “political murder of the day” on this website on March 9.)

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were the three young men killed by KKK members in the summer of 1964 in Mississippi because they dared to put African-Americans on the voting rolls. They’re also a reason to vote. And there are so, so many others.

The image of Lewis embracing the nation’s first black president was a stark reminder of how far the country has come. And the image of the mayor of Ferguson, Mo., denying that his town has a race problem even after the release of a damning Department of Justice report about the Ferguson police shows how far there is to go. The voter participation rate in the Ferguson municipal election before the shooting death of Michael Brown was 12 percent. As the Rev. Al Sharpton told Ferguson residents, “Twelve percent is an insult to your children.”

Voting is our right, our privilege, and our responsibility. Today, in the United States, that seems more important than ever. Consider the pitiful voter turnout rate of 36 percent in the 2014 election. Nearly two-thirds of the country stayed home on Election Day, and yet, people still complain about the outcome. With bigger GOP majorities in both houses, Congress seems even less able to function. And consider the turnout of the nation’s youngest voters in the 2014 election as a percentage of the electorate. Yet another 12 percent figure.


As Obama correctly pointed out, countries all over the world have much higher voting rates than the U.S. Even with the relatively high turnout in the 2008 election, with a rate of more than 60 percent, the United States still ranked 59th in voter turnout that year. In mid-term elections, the rate averages closer to 40 percent.

“We know the march is not yet over,” Obama told the thousands gathered at the historic bridge and the millions listening to his landmark speech on television.

Nope, not over. Next election day, get your butts to your local polling place.

House GOP leaders not bothering with Selma anniversary

Alabama state troopers attacking John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Alabama state troopers attacking John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights activists trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery to protest voting restrictions were instead beaten with billy clubs by state troopers and local police.

Nearly 100 members of Congress will be in Selma during a three-day event to mark the anniversary, as will President Obama and former President George W. Bush. The lawmakers who won’t be there are the members of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t bothering to show up, either.

According to an article in Politico, “None of the top leaders — House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group — will be in Selma for the three-day event.”

Do they realize how tone-deaf this is? After all, Scalise once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage, but electable,” referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader who headed the supremacist group when Scalise addressed it in 2002.

“It is very disappointing that not a single Republican leader sees the value in participating in this 50th commemoration of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. I had hoped that some of the leadership would attend, but apparently none of them will,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, according to the Politico story. “The Republicans always talk about trying to change their brand and be more appealing to minority folks and be in touch with the interests of African-Americans. This is very disappointing.”

To be fair, some 23 Republican members of Congress will be there — the largest number of Republicans ever to attend the annual event. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first African-American Republican elected from the South since Reconstruction, is one of the co-sponsors, along with Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.). Democratic co-sponsors are Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Rep. Terri Sewell, also of Alabama. All of the co-sponsors urged fellow lawmakers to attend.

The event, “At the Bridge,” is organized by a nonprofit and nonpartisan group called the Faith and Politics Institute. It’s one of many events being held in Alabama this weekend to mark the anniversary, including film festivals, art exhibits, workshops, lectures, and concerts. There also will be a reenactment of the bridge crossing, which no doubt will be filled with lawmakers.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who participated in the 1965 march and was beaten, said he was disappointed in the lack of GOP leadership at the event. “I wish we had someone in [Republican] leadership going,” he told Politico. But in another story in USA Today, he said he was happy to see more Republican participation.

Lewis also said he hoped the event would increase backing among Republicans to support needed fixes in the Voting Rights Act, which was partially gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We can talk in fellowship and get to know each other better,” he told USA Today. “It’s going to be wonderful.” Wishful thinking, if nothing else.

For their part, officials of Faith and Politics said they, too, were pleased with the turnout. “We are very pleased that the Faith and Politics Institute is gathering an unprecedented amount of senators and members of Congress in bipartisan fashion to honor and reflect upon the history of the civil rights movement and the work that still needs to be done,” said Rob Liberatore, chairman of the board of the Faith and Politics Institute, in the USA Today story.

Maybe by the time the weekend rolls around, some of those in the GOP leadership will have come to their senses and will head down to Selma. Even though the official registration for the Faith and Politics event is closed, I’m sure they would be welcomed with open arms. Unlike the marchers 50 years ago.

UPDATE: Apparently GOP leaders were tired of bad publicity. Now Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will attend the Selma event. He’ll have to squeeze in; organizers are expecting 100,000 people.


Thanks, Sen. Mikulski. But women in Congress have a long way to go

With the announced retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Congress will lose its longest female serving member. But there’s still an enormous gender gap in our country’s legislative branch.

There are currently 20 women senators (20 percent) and 84 women in the House of Representatives (19.3 percent, and some of those women are non-voting representatives). The vast majority are Democrats (76 in all) compared with Republicans (28 in all). And those percentages — in either party — are as high as they have ever been. There have been more than 13,000 members of Congress in U.S. history, and only two percent — fewer than 300 elected or appointed representatives or senators — have been women.

The U.S. ranks 77th in the world by the percentage of legislative seats held by women. In Rwanda, women make up nearly 60 percent of that nation’s legislators. Countries throughout Africa and Europe have percentages of female representation in the 30th and 40th percentiles. Some countries even employ a quota system to ensure female representation in legislative bodies.

Yet in the U.S., three states — Delaware, Mississippi, and Vermont — have yet to elect a woman to Congress, although Delaware and Vermont have had female governors. Iowa broke its logjam by electing a woman to Congress for the first time: Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, in 2014.

Why the gulf? According to a 2012 paper titled “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” by Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University, the biggest factor is that fewer women run for office. A lot fewer. The two academics list seven reasons why:

  • Women are more likely than men to see the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
  • Hillary Clinton’s and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in elections.
  • Women are less likely than men to think they are qualified.
  • Potential female candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse.
  • Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
  • Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office.
  • Women still handle the majority of childcare and household tasks (no surprise there!).

Yet, the two say in their summary, “Study after study find that, when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success.”

Another factor often cited is sexist media coverage of female candidates. A nonpartisan group called “Name It. Change It.,” a joint project of the Women’s Media Center and a group called She Should Run, released two studies in 2013 reporting on media’s focus of women candidates’ appearance and the use of sexist language in covering campaigns. Female candidates lost ground when media used terms like “ice queen” and “mean girl” in describing candidates, and also lost ground when media focused on a candidate’s appearance, whether those descriptions were positive or negative. When female candidates insisted that coverage and campaigns focus on issues instead of appearances or name calling, the candidates regained ground.

But it’s a tall order. Every time Hillary Clinton changes her hairstyle, it’s covered as news and is interpreted as sending a message about her presidential intentions. How much has been written about her black pantsuits? How much about Sarah Palin’s clothes?

Of course, the tactic can backfire. In 2014, a Republican state lawmaker called Rep. Annie Kuster “ugly as sin” and predicted that the Democratic incumbent would lose to her “truly attractive” opponent, Marilinda Garcia. That was even too much for New Hampshire voters; Kuster won.

Rep. Jeanette Rankin

Rep. Jeanette Rankin

The first woman to serve in Congress was Rep. Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana who was elected to the House in 1916. She was one of 50 legislators to vote against joining World War I, which killed her House re-election chances in 1918 (she ran for the Senate as a third-party candidate and lost). She was elected to Congress again in 1940, when she became the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said of that vote.

Rankin had worked successfully to give Montana women the right to vote in 1914, so it was no surprise that she worked hard to pass the 19th Amendment in Congress during her first term in Congress, guaranteeing women the right to vote nationwide. “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she asked her male colleagues “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

The first African-American female senator was Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois who was elected in 1992. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from New York, was the first African-American woman to serve in the House and was first elected in 1968. Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first female Asian/Pacific Islander to serve in the House; the Hawaii Democrat was first elected in 1968. Sen. Mazie Hirono became the first female Asian/Pacific Islander to serve in the Senate; she was elected from Hawaii in 2012. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina to serve in Congress; the Florida Republican has served two separate districts and was first elected in 1988. There has never been a Latina in the Senate.

What about the top positions? Nancy Pelosi became the first-ever House Speaker in 2007, and she’s still House minority leader. But when it comes to leading a country, that’s a glass ceiling the U.S. has yet to crack. There have been female leaders on six continents (seven if you count female penguins leaving the males at home to tend the eggs), but not in the U.S. There have been female presidents, prime ministers, and governor-generals in Western and non-Western countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Israel, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Korea — and many more. A woman, Soong Ching-ling, was even the acting co-chairperson of China.

March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day. The next national election day is not until Nov. 8, 2016. It’s likely there could be a woman at the head of the Democratic Party’s ticket in Hillary Clinton. Might it be too much to hope for that there would be more women on the ballot in other races, too?


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