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The Contraception First Amendment Fight Is Not About Freedom of Religion

7:42 pm in Religion, Republican party by Scarecrow

The Catholic Bishops, Republican Party and GOP presidential candidates have managed to convince much of the national media that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion is at stake in the Administration’s proposal requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception services.  They’ve got it backwards.

Spokesmen for the Bishops claim that the rule deprives all Catholic employers, not just Catholic churches and institutions, of their religious freedom. Some go further by arguing the insurance rule shouldn’t be imposed on any employers, because that would force people who disapprove of contraception to pay into insurance pools that then provide coverage for contraception.

This is a very cynical con, a bait and switch that needs to be called out.  So let’s start with the foundation.  The First Amendment to the Constitution says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Catholic Bishops and GOP politicians now exploiting the issue repeatedly claim that the provision implicated is the prohibition against the “free exercise” of religion.  But as you can see, there are two prohibitions here: the second is the “free exercise” clause; the first is against the “establishment of religion.”  It is this “establishment clause,” not the “free exercise” clause, that is really at stake, but it’s not the  Administration that’s causing this.

The Bishops spokesmen’s constant invocation of “freedom of religion” and GOP faux hysteria about a “war against religious freedom” are ways to convince us this is the correct framing.  Obscuring that this is really about the “establishment clause” is the political bait and switch the Bishops and GOP are now using to con the media and the American people.

We should first recall that the Supreme Court has never held the prohibitions in the First Amendment to be absolute.  We have freedom of the press, but a newspaper can’t lawfully libel someone.  Similarly we have freedom of speech, but you can’t defame someone, and governments can adopt laws limiting speech like “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowed theater” or inciting a riot and even prescribe rules on the time and place where “free speech” can occur.   We also respect “freedom” of religion, particularly as to beliefs, but government can still pass laws preventing religious organizations from exploiting child labor, or sacrificing virgins or your first born child, or conning the congregation into drinking poisoned Kool-aid, even if that’s claimed to be a religious ceremony.

Notwithstanding the language, “Congress shall make no law . . .”  it has always been permissible under the Constitution for government to enact reasonable labor protections and health and safety rules that affect everyone, including employees of religious institutions.  That’s why no one is surprised that half the US states already have rules requiring insurers to cover contraceptive services for almost everyone, and the Supreme Court is fine with that.  Some states may exempt church employers, and others not; but that is a matter of accommodation, it’s not because it is constitutionally required.

In short, there is nothing about the proposed Administration insurance rule that violates the “free exercise” clause.  And no one, least of all this Administration, is in a war against religion or religious freedom; those, especially GOP candidates, who say otherwise are simply nuts or shameful demagogues.

What’s happening here is that the government has chosen to adopt a rule relating to health care.  Proponents often say this, and some media may dismiss this as ducking the religious issue, but it’s not.  It’s consistent with what we’ve done for decades.  Contraception is about health care, mostly women’s health care, and sometimes life-saving health care; but it’s clearly health care.  When government addresses contraception, it does so for health reasons, not religious reasons.  Government can adopt rules to protect women’s health and safety without violating the First Amendment.

What about the “establishment clause”?  This is how the bait and switch happens.  The Catholic Bishops do not believe contraception should be used; it shouldn’t be available at all.  They don’t mean just unavailable to Catholics; they mean not available to anyone. They want the legal rule to be: no contraceptives for anyone, so no insurance coverage for contraception services for anyone.

Religious freedom says they are free to believe contraception is wrong, that it violates their religion.  Government can’t force them to believe otherwise; it can’t force them to exercise a religion they don’t believe, except that government can, for health and safety reasons, require everyone to obey reasonable rules to protect peoples’ health and safety, even if some believe such regulations are inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean the Catholic Bishops, or any other religious leaders, have the right to impose what they believe on everyone else.  When we cross over to the realm of what the rules should be for everyone, and the pushing is coming from a religious purpose, it’s more likely we’re talking about that other clause, the establishment clause.  And that’s exactly where the Bishops are.

Those who oppose any contraception insurance coverage want to prevent the government from having a rule that requires contraception, or have it adopt a rule prohibiting the coverage of contraception.  And they want this not for health/safety reasons, but for declared religious ones.  In other words, they want a government rule that imposes their religious beliefs on everyone else.  That’s not about the “free exercise” clause; that’s “establishment of religion.”

It is the Catholic Bishops and the GOP politicians exploiting this who are pressing to have government violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.   And that’s the real Constitutional violation at stake here.

(h/t to Digby on the Boies video)

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Oh My! CNBC’s Jim Cramer Goes Anti-Rick Santelli Over GOP Clown Debate

7:13 am in Economy, Republican party by Scarecrow

I don’t know what got into Jim Cramer.  Apparently, he must have thought the GOP Clown Car debate CNBC inflicted on its viewers involved a group of grown ups discussing serious economic and financial issue in a serious way.

Did he not know, before last night, that this group of GOP specimens includes some of the silliest, most clueless, confused, misinformed and/or intellectually challenged/dishonest bunch of charlatans ever assembled by a national political party?  Was he really surprised to learn these clowns perfectly reflect what the Republican Party has become, that they have nothing useful or even coherent to say about any of the nation’s real problems?

Europe is teetering on the edge of a financial collapse so serious it’s likely to cause a recession or worse there and drag the US back into it here.  Sounds like a serous topic, right?  And part of the reason is Europe’s leaders became enthralled with the same dishonest deficit/debt hysteria that afflicts the GOP and most of the Congressional Democrats, not to mention the President and his not-the-Chief of Staff corporate bagman.

Much like the US, Europe is burdened with incompetent political and economic leadership, epitomized there by a depressingly (literally) irresponsible European Central Bank. Collectively, they’re strangling their own economies in the absurd belief that if you punish and impoverish the debtors that buy your stuff, creditor nations that sell them that stuff will be just fine.

Sensible people understand the ECB’s abdication of its core responsibilities — e.g., lender of last resort in a financial crisis — will hasten collapse in Europe.  So naturally, half of the GOP’s clowns want to abolish the central bank here or “hurt” the Fed Chairman if he does something sensible to help the recovery, and the ones who know this is wrong are too cowardly to explain why that’s nuts.

It’s possible that Huntsman understands part of this — but he will never let on and it doesn’t matter for Mr. 1% anyway — and that Romney, in wandering between positions, misunderstands the rest but will take whatever position his audience needs to hear.  But it’s not credible that anyone else on that stage, including half of CNBC’s questioners — Rick Santelli! –  grasps what’s happening in Europe or here.

The GOP’s proposals are a mindless collection of talking points and pointless initiatives that at best would do nothing except give money to friends but collectively would make things worse.  In the meantime, their colleagues in Congress doggedly refuse to even debate even modest proposals that might actually help the unemployed and rescue homeowners and drowning states.

But this is not news.  We’ve known for some time that the GOP has become hopelessly corrupt, confused, corporatized, criminal and captured by teh stupid.  The one thing it’s definitely not is conservative.   It’s destructive of everything, and that means they’re dangerous. Even George Will knows this.

The Republican party should be abolished for the good of the country, and it’s astonishing that Jim Cramer is just discovering this.   Will Maria now admit it too?

Keeping the Lights On In Texas . . . and Claire McCaskill’s Head

1:06 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

The big story in Texas this week was loss of electricity and the need for “rolling blackouts” in major urban areas and other load centers, which affected natural gas supplies into Northern New Mexico. What does it tell us?

According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the combined electricity grid and power plant dispatch for most of Texas, it all started when two large coal-fired power plants in Central Texas suffered mechanical breakdowns, likely due to very cold weather, and suddenly shut down. Their combined capacity is over 2600 megawatts (MW), and additional units lost or unable to start in the cold weather may have totalled about 7,000 MW in a system whose peak winter demand can reach over 60,000 MW. That was apparently too much of a sudden loss for the ERCOT system alone.

In electricity systems, the laws of physics rule: supply and demand (plus losses) must perfectly balance at every moment for the system to remain stable. So the ISO must have reserve units standing by to replace the lost supply immediately and restore balance. If there aren’t enough reserves, or other units also fail, the ISO has no choice but to order that some customer loads be immediately curtailed to restore this necessary balance.

It’s still too early to describe the exact sequence of events that caused the system to crash, or if it could have been prevented. But there’s a broad lesson not just for electrical systems but for political and economic systems.

When electricity systems were first built, they were local, typically just for a community or city, and the systems were not interconnected. It was every system for itself. As they spread, utilities gradually built more transmission, both to bring in power from plants located outside the load centers and to allow sharing of these standby reserves in case one system suffered supply cutoffs and needed emergency supplies from its neighbor utilities. Eventually, utilities merged and became even more interconnected. Now the entire US is highly interconnected.

About 85 years ago, utilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland formed the PJM power pool. The idea was to run their combined generation pool and transmission as a single, interconnected system, because it would both be cheaper to combine their dispatches and more reliable; a problem in one system could be easily solved by power flowing from the neighboring system in the pool. PJM made all of its members more reliable and so others joined.

After the blackouts in the 1960s and 1980s, other power pools formed, one for all of New York’s utilities and another for all of the utilities in New England. New York now functions as one system; all of New England functions as one system. Eventually other pools formed in the Midwest, in the Southwest, California and Texas.

Moreover, NY and NE are interconnected with each other, and NY is interconnected with PJM, which in turn is strongly interconnected with MISO, and then SPP and so on. The entire Eastern Interconnection now functions as one machine, and the regional system operators at PJM, NY ISO, NE ISO, Midwest ISO, etc all coordinate with each other in varying degrees. They’re all interconnected by free-flowing alternating current (AC) transmission lines, so power moves freely from one region to another. They all support and interact with each other, every second, every day. The lights in New Jersey may be kept on partly from plants in Illinois.

ERCOT finally moved to this power pool formation about a decade ago. But there’s a limit to this, because Texas chose decades ago to limit its transmission interconnections with other states, so as to avoid the “interstate commerce” that would trigger Federal jurisdiction. It’s the Rick Perry attitude towards whether they’re part of the Union or not.

Texas stands alone, and the interconnections it has with other states are both limited and of a different type (Direct Current), which aren’t free flowing; they’re highly controlled.

What that means is that when something happens in Texas, it doesn’t affect surrounding systems like Southwest Power Pool, and vice versa. But the price they pay is that when they need help, they don’t necessarily get it. And when there’s a severe emergency, as happened this week, their whole system becomes vulnerable, just to please an ideological insistence to stand alone.

If Texas had been more interconnected with the US, the way the entire Eastern Interconnection (MISO, SPP, PJM, NY, NE, etc) are interconnected, it’s entirely possible that the combined system would have automatically fixed the problems before the lights in Texas went out. It’s just physics.

When an operating plant trips off, standby operating reserves automatically kick in, and if those trip too, other plants should kick in. Further, in a fraction of a second, the voltage frequency drops across the transmission grid, and [local] voltage support may also suffer. When that happens, the ISO’s system dispatch automatically sends signals to many other generators to ramp up, to bring supply back in balance with demand and raise voltage levels to reliable levels.

Again, we don’t know the exact sequence of the Texas failure. But it’s likely that if Texas had been more strongly interconnected with the US, the entire Eastern Interconnection would have instantly responded to the frequency/voltage dips and immediately brought more generators on line in surrounding states. So even if other plants in Texas tripped off, as they apparently did, extra power from plants in Missouri and Illinois and Ohio would have kept the lights on in Texas.

That would have avoided rolling blackouts in Texas’ cities. It would have kept the electric compressor/pumps running in northern Texas that send natural gas to Northern New Mexico, which lost gas supplies for heating in the middle of winter.

In unity, there is strength, safety, reliability. We know this. We’ve had 100 years of electricity system developments to prove it, over and over.

But the same lesson applies to the national economy. When the economy goes into deep recession, individual states get clobbered. They lose tax revenues as people lose jobs and businesses close, but their expenses for emergency services like unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and so on skyrocket. They can’t solve this acting alone.

But the federal government acting as a union can. The feds can and should automatically pick up the funding for these safety net programs the instant the states get into trouble. That federal spending is what keeps people alive, it’s what keeps the economy from completely crashing, and keeps unemployment from exploding even more. It could save the states.

And the federal government can do this over time. It can spend more now, when it’s needed, and cut back later, when the economy and the states are able to pick up the slack on their own. It’s obvious to any sentient being that we need lots of additional federal spending to help states that are going through budget crisis. But we’re pretending as if we’re not connected, that we’re not a union. That’s insane.

These principles are so universal, so obvious, so correct in both policy and politics, that it’s astonishing that there is a single Democratic legislator that doesn’t get it. I don’t expect Republicans to care; the current crop is either stupid, dishonest or evil.

But there’s no excuse for a Claire McCaskill to be cosponsoring “balanced budget” amendments or arbitrary spending caps that would cripple America’s ability to function as a union, to prevent the feds from providing the “balancing” function that has to be there for the people and economy to recover. She may as well be proposing to turn out the lights in Missouri. It’s that crazy.

And it’s equally inexcusable for other foolish Democrats to be competing with Tea-GOP nihilists on which safety-net programs to cut first and deepest. Every one of these efforts will hurt the public, and no Democrat should be promoting them.

Update: The Rush Limbaugh/Drudge and other conservative claims that the blackouts were the result of environmental regs or anti-coal policies is utter crap. [See Adam Siegel's rebuttal here.] As I said, “stupid, dishonest, or evil.” In Rush”s case, it’s all three.

ABC This Week Panel: We’re in Crisis. Time for Tea-GOPers to “Grow Up”

8:41 am in Government, Legislature, Politics by Scarecrow

Oh my. If Amy Walters, George Will, and Major Garrett agree that Tea Party Republicans need to grow up before they wreck the US economy, maybe there’s hope . . . but not much. Follow the logic if you can:

First, Will opened by noting the Federal Government had bailed out Wall Street and the automakers, but now it faces the prospect of several states, including California (world’s 8th largest economy) declaring bankruptcy.

Next, Will disagreed with Amy Walters that the message from the elections was voters’ hope that everyone in D.C. could just get along and solve the country’s problems. The correct message, Will insisted, was that voters wanted the Tea-GOPs to “throw sand in the gears” and “make it stop.”

Finally, Will, Walters and Garrett agreed that John Boehner would have a problem getting his new Tea-troops to understand that sovereign nations shouldn’t needlessly default on their debt, which Will said would happen if Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling. He and Walters then repeated the theme that previous “no” votes on raising the ceiling were tolerated only because they weren’t the majority, but we’d have a serious financial crisis if there weren’t enough adults to override the crazies. My, my. Where have we heard that before?

In a rational, humane and grownup world, the US would, consistent with the view that the US Constitution was created to “form a more perfect union . . . ensure domestic tranquility . . . promote the general welfare . . .” be working hard to develop a plan to fund essential services that states could not afford to carry during a major economic downturn.

There would be sufficient federal funds to pick up the entire increase in unemployment insurance and Medicaid and other safety-net programs that explode when recessions occur and collapse state tax revenues.

There would be sufficient funding to keep states and local districts from laying off teachers, firemen, police, sanitation, health and other essential workers which states and cities struggle to fund when their own tax revenues collapse.

There would be funding to keep essential programs functioning, to keep infrastructure from collapsing, to keep parks and other civic amenities from deteriorating at a huge, irretrievable loss to their communities.

And these efforts would be linked to programs to put the unemployed back to work, doing all the things that state and local communities need done to keep things going now and to build the foundation for the next generation.

We’re in a national crisis playing out at the state and local level. We need a national crisis response that can only be led and funded at the federal level. That’s what the federal government is for. And that’s the agenda for the next Congress. It would require they become adults.

But to summarize the bipartisan Beltway view, while one of the most dangerous but solvable crises facing the country is the impending bankruptcy of several US states and the collapse of services in communities all over the country — welcome to Ireland and Greece — the Tea-GOP Party coming to power doesn’t have the slightest inclination to allow the federal government to respond but would prefer to “stop it, to throw sand in the gears.” And while this brings several US states crashing to the ground, the same Tea-GOPers think it’s fine to crash the US fiscal and financial system.

Where’s Richard Clarke? “US Taliban planning to attack America.” You’ve been warned.

Republicans Introduce Their Pledge to Screw America Again (FDL Translation)

8:02 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

CBS reports it has obtained an advance copy of the Republican "Pledge to America," summarizing the GOP’s proposals for "Jobs," "Cutting Spending,"" Reforming Congress," and "Defense." Nothing new; just the usual GOP double talk and nonsense.

Unlike the cynical gibberish the Republicans will release today, FDL has compiled a summary of actual Republican policies and beliefs, based on their actual votes, public statements and past performance. So here, after an exhaustive 5-minute search of my memory (feel free to add stuff I forgot), is your 2010 Republican Party:

The Real Republican Pledge to America, based on their actual votes, history and statements:

1.  Create More Jobless, then Screw Them:

– Run the economy into ditch; worst recession since 1930s; put millions out of work

– Deregulate predator financial institutions; then bail them out and shield them from oversight

– Let banks/lenders prey on consumers; oppose, shackle consumer protection

– Use Fed and Treasury to rescue Wall Street, ignore Mainstreet’s recession

– Obstruct jobs programs,

– Oppose and cripple stimulus, then claim credit for the jobs it creates

– Obstruct help to states trying to avoid teacher, firemen, police layoffs

2.  Actual Spending Policies:

– Double debt over last ten years and support $700 billion more deficit next ten years in tax gifts to the richest Americans

– Start two wars (est. cost: $3 trillion) without raising revenues to pay for them

– Support efforts to cripple state revenues, then . . .

– Vote against money to help struggling states avoid teacher, firemen, police, parks, healthcare layoffs

– Deny funding for unemployment benefits

– Deny funding health care; threaten to defund/repeal insurance reforms that stop discrimination and arbitary coverage denials

– Enable worst poverty in 30 years, propose nothing to relieve it

– Create highest number of uninsured, ever; ignore it

– Recreate egregious inequality, in which the richest own most of the wealth; applaud it

– Redirect wealth upwards, to put the middle class under siege

– Curtail investments in alternative energy, infrastructure, public goods

– Cut support for veterans

– Privatize Social Security, Medicare and VA health system

3. Congressional "Reform"

– Ignore pay-go when they’re in charge

– Set records for abuse of filibuster

– Abuse Senate holds to stall nominations for personal earmarks

– Shut down government when they lose elections

4. Defense Policies:

– Create national fear/hatred of a billion Muslims;

– Begin endless wars against a billion Muslims

– Fund every weapon system the Pentagon and contractors ask for; cripple oversight of wasted, fraud

– Destroy Constitutional rights to create fear-based intelligence/terror state

– Endorse kidnapping, rendition, torture, indefinite detention, black sites, assassinations, even of Americans

5.  Family Values

– Lie, make up stories, demagogue about Obama’s birth, religion, beliefs and policies to destroy the legitimacy of a democratically elected Democratic President

– Invent an alternative faux reality based on lies and relentlessly disseminate it via an ideologically controlled media

– Cynically demonize, distort the meaning of common words and issues that might undermine this alternate reality

– Cynically provoke fear of "others," usually immigrants, Muslims, non-Christians, "them," to sustain heightened support for war and executive power over individual liberty

– Undermine religious liberty for any but the preferred Christian religions; encourage religious zealotry and hatred

– Promote religious uniformity via state control over individuals and use of state to establish the preferred belief systems

– Oppose universal health care, student aid, consumer protection, environmental protection

– Teach their children to reject science, climate realities, evolution or anything that might question their alternative reality

– Bully, intimidate, shut down public meetings so we can’t even talk about public issues; convince yourselves the purpose of the 2nd Amendment is to threaten/shoot those you disagree with (h/t Kathryn in MA)

– Listen only to corporate shills who deny actual problems revealed by science where it conflicts with corporate agenda of those manipulating the ignorant

– Oppose federal assistance to those harmed by corporate malfeasance and related economic forces

– Oppose efforts to reduce income inequality; strangle efforts to preserve the middle class

– Oppose efforts to end discrimination against women, blacks, Latinos, gays, or any other "them"

– Oppose efforts to curtail the power of mega-corporations that control how people live, what they buy, what they eat, wear, watch

– Oppose any efforts by the state to regulate corporate power in the public interest

It’s an astonishing record; its [im]morality rivals anything in the Bible’s Old Testament. They’ve become the most irresponsible, ignorant and morally repugnant party in my lifetime.

And based on all that, they say, "Vote Republican."

*Any resemblance to policies, votes or actions of corporate Democrats/conseraDems or the current Administration, is both likely and inexcusable, but it just might explain that "enthusiasm gap" thing.

John Chandley

HuffPost, Sam Stein: GOP Pledge Director Lobbied for AIG, EXXON, Pfizer, Chamber