Friday Talking Points -- Freedom From Job Lock

Americans across the land are banding together to solve one of the country's most pressing problems, it seems: demanding that Justin Bieber be deported!

Sadly, you just can't make this stuff up, folks. Senator Mark Warner has now chimed in on this important issue, and there's now a petition up on the White House website asking President Obama to give Bieber the boot back to Canada.

In other names-in-the-news, Clay Aiken has decided to run for a House seat in North Carolina. As I said, you just can't make this stuff up.

And, most amusing to us personally, the quiz show Jeopardy! just started a tournament of past champions, and we were bowled over by the fact that one of them was none other than the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray. Sadly, Cordray lost in the first round, but it was kind of cool to see him there. He did not accept any prize money and paid for his own airfare, to keep the whole thing well within government ethics laws. But still, how many high-ranking government officials have ever been a Jeopardy! champion to begin with?

Lighter news aside, let's take a look at the week that was, shall we?

John Boehner either admitted that he lacks leadership skills, or perhaps just that his House party caucus is as unleadable as a bunch of kittens hopped up on catnip. The next big legislative fight (raising the debt ceiling) is just around the corner, and the Republicans can't seem to agree on what to hold as hostage (since "holding hostages" is just about the only thing they know how to do, at this point). They considered demanding that President Obama approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and then they considered demanding that risk corridors be abolished in the dreaded Obamacare. They couldn't agree on either one of them (that second one would actually have hiked the deficit by around 8 billion dollars). So they then considered restoring the cuts to military pay they made in the last budget deal. But they couldn't even agree on that among themselves. This led a frustrated Boehner to announce that he "couldn't get 218 Republican votes" to agree to call Mother Teresa a saint right now. Which just shows how ineffectual a leader Boehner truly is, really.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are more cohesive, especially when it comes to filibustering the extension of unemployment benefits for 1.7 million Americans.

And out on the campaign trail, Republicans have set up fraudulent websites to try to get Democratic donors for House candidates to mistakenly give money to Republican opponents. Seriously, this is about as dirty a trick as we've seen in quite some time, and deserves some media attention.

Speaking of dirty tricks, you have to wonder how Republicans are answering poll questions these days, as evidenced by an excellent breakdown of the people who say they've been hurt by Obamacare. Overall, 13 percent of the people say they've been helped by the new law, 64 percent say it has had no effect on them, and 19 percent say they've been harmed by it in one way or another. But when you dig into that 19 percent, the partisanship of the answers becomes apparent. Something to keep in mind when judging the accuracy of that number, that's for sure.

In marijuana news (note: there has been so much news on marijuana this year that it seems this will become a regular weekly feature, here), one study now suggests that states that have legalized medicinal marijuana have decreased the suicide rate among young males considerably -- roughly a 10 percent drop. More science for the drug warriors to ignore! There will be much more on the general subject of drug warriors ignoring reality in a moment (in the awards), I should note.

The president of Uruguay, José "Pepe" Mujica, who earlier legalized (and created a government-run marketplace for) marijuana has been nominated once again for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last year, he made it into the top 10 candidates, so he's got a definite shot at it.

The District of Columbia seems to be on the brink of decriminalizing marijuana and instituting a fine of $25 for simple possession (like getting a traffic ticket, in essence). But the truly significant thing about this development is the absolute lack of any pushback from Congress. Way back in 1998, D.C. put a medical marijuana initiative (Initiative 59) on their ballot. In one of the most stunningly anti-democratic moves to ever happen in my lifetime, when the exit polling showed that the measure would easily pass, Congress rammed through a bill (the "Bob Barr Amendment") which essentially prohibited the counting of the ballots. The initiative people took it to court, and won (since such a move is so blatantly and obviously unconstitutional). When the ballots were counted, the measure passed with over 60 percent of the vote. So Barr then passed another law, which not only invalidated the initiative but also tried to prohibit any future law from passing on the issue. Once again, not very constitutional. It took until 2009 to overturn this law and allow medicinal marijuana in the District.

How times have changed. Today, Bob Barr has seen the libertarian light and now fights for marijuana legal reform. And this week, the city council's move towards decriminalization has yet to elicit a peep from Republicans on Capitol Hill. The silence is both deafening, and welcome. As Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project put it, to the Huffington Post, "Most members of Congress are, like the president, bending over backwards to avoid taking a position on the issue. The few that you see talking publicly about marijuana publicly -- Blumenauer, Polis, Cohen, etc. -- are saying it should be legal, taxed and regulated, and criticizing those who support prohibition."

Which brings us right to our awards section, in fact.


Before we get to this week's main Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards, we have a few Honorable Mentions to hand out first.

In the "sorry to see you go" category, former Congressman Otis Pike has died. Pike led the first and most intensive committee hearing into the abuses of the American intelligence community of all time, back in the 1970s. The House counterpart to the better-known Church Committee, the Pike Committee dug much deeper and refused to limit their investigation in the way even the Senate's Church Committee did -- Pike (for instance) was the first one to ever examine what the NSA was up to, while the Church Committee limited itself to mostly investigating the CIA and the FBI. The whole story is fascinating (and little-known), so it is well worth reading in full, especially for supporters of Edward Snowden. For Otis Pike's efforts, we hereby award a posthumous Honorable Mention.

Alison Lundergan Grimes deserves one, as well, for the recent non-partisan poll which showed her up by four points (46 percent to 42 percent) over Mitch McConnell in the Senate race in Kentucky. Go, Alison, go!

And since Max Baucus is off to China, Montana's governor appointed the state's lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to take over the Senate seat Baucus is stepping down from. Walsh will have to run to retain the seat, later this year, but we'd like to welcome him to the Senate in the meantime.

OK, let's get on with the main awards.

The House committee on government oversight held the most extraordinary hearing this week, on the subject of how federal marijuana policy needs to change to adapt to the new realities in not just Colorado and Washington, but also in the 20 states where medical marijuana is now legal. Federal law hasn't budged an inch since the first state did so, back in the 1990s, so some enterprising House members decided to study the issue. They invited the head of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy to testify. He chickened out and sent his deputy, Michael Botticelli, instead.

A video of the whole hearing is available on the committee's official web page, split into two parts. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the issue take the time to watch the full video, in fact. The first part is mostly opening statements by both the committee members and Botticelli. The fur doesn't really start to fly until the second part of the hearing. The whole thing is worth watching, if you've never seen a governmental official refuse to answer the simplest of questions, because he knows that politically it would be suicidal for him to do so. But three members of the committee stood out for their questioning.

Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia was the first of these (he appears at 16:10 in Part 2 of the video). He was the most successful questioner, since he actually got Botticelli (in an offhand way) to admit that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol (which President Obama famously just admitted in a recent interview).

The last two questioners truly stood out, in both forcefulness and emotion. Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon (starting at 30:55 of Part 2 of the video) at first tried to get Botticelli to admit that marijuana was less dangerous and less addictive than cocaine and methamphetamine (two drugs that federal law categorizes as being less dangerous). Botticelli tried to filibuster his answer, refusing to address the question directly. Blumenauer then showed his frustration with such a weaselly answer:

Let me just say that your equivocation right there, being unable to answer something clearly and definitively when there is unquestioned evidence to the contrary, is why young people don't believe the propaganda -- why they think [marijuana is] benign. If a professional like you can't answer clearly that meth is more dangerous than marijuana -- which every kid on the street knows, which every parent knows -- if you can't answer that, maybe that's why we're failing to educate people about the dangers [of marijuana]. I don't want kids smoking marijuana; I agree with the chairman. But if the deputy director of the office of drug policy can't answer that question, how do you expect high school kids to take you seriously?

Botticelli tried to waffle on the answer once again, and Blumenauer shot back:

I asked what was more dangerous; you couldn't answer it. And I just want to say that you, sir, represent what's part of the problem. ... We've been able to drop tobacco use without being coercive, we've been using fact-based advertising and we focused our efforts on things that matter rather than things that don't work. I'd respectfully suggest that you and the department take a step back if you're concerned that somehow people think marijuana is benign, part of the reason is that drug professionals can't communicate in ways the rest of America does.

Finally, Representative Steve Cohen from Tennessee posed the final round of questions (starts at 37:25 of Part 2 of the video). He began by quoting A Few Good Men to Botticelli: "You can't handle the truth." That was just where he started, mind you. Later, Cohen got Botticelli to admit that he could not "name one person who's died from an overdose of marijuana." He asked "Do you know people, possibly, heard of people who smoke marijuana, who are corporate giants? Who run banks? Run major corporations?" which Botticelli tried to dodge. Cohen then pointed out that marijuana doesn't cause domestic violence in the same way alcohol does, and in the strongest terms possible ripped into Botticelli for his continuing refusal to admit that marijuana was less dangerous than heroin:

It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroin. Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin. Every second that we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we're not enforcing heroin laws. And heroin and meth are the two drugs that are ravaging our country. And every death, including Mr. Hoffman's, is partly the responsibility of the federal government's drug priorities for not putting total emphasis on the drugs that kill, that cause people to be addicted and have to steal to support their habit.

Cohen wasn't buying any of Botticelli's waffling, either. In an increasingly loud voice, Cohen publicly spanked Botticelli some more:

Heroin is getting into the arms of young people. When we put marijuana on the same level as heroin and crack and LSD and meth and crack and cocaine, we are telling young people not to listen to adults about the ravages and problems, and they don't listen because they know you're wrong.

Cohen ended just as forcefully as he began:

Isn't that a mistake when people die form heroin in great numbers, that the Vermont governor spends his entire State of the State on heroin use? And we don't distinguish and try to save people's lives? That's when you knock people over at the corner store. It's not to get money to buy a donut 'cause you're high, it's to buy heroin because you're hooked.

As already mentioned, it was an extraordinary hearing. We're not the only ones to think so, either. Afterwards, Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project emailed the following reaction:

It's refreshing to see members of Congress who aren't willing to accept the same old "reefer madness" anymore from government officials exaggerating the harms of marijuana. I was incredibly impressed with the substance and tone of the questions asked at the hearing, and particularly impressed by the way several members didn't let O.N.D.C.P.'s witness dodge those questions. That was the best congressional hearing on marijuana in my lifetime.

Marijuana is dramatically safer than alcohol, and our laws should treat it that way. It simply isn't rational to allow adults to consume a toxic, addictive, violence-inducing drug like alcohol, but punish them for making a responsible choice to use a less harmful alternative. It's time for Congress to end marijuana prohibition, and I look forward to seeing some of the congressmen we heard from Tuesday lead the way.

We fully agree. Which is why Gerry Connolly, Earl Blumenauer and Steve Cohen are all winners of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. We look forward to seeing them press this issue in future hearings, as well.

[Congratulate Representative Earl Blumenauer on his House contact page, Representative Steve Cohen on his House contact page and Representative Gerry Connolly on his House contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Sandra Fluke disappointed many fans this week when she briefly considered running for the House, but then decided to start with running for a California state senate seat instead.

Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas deserves at least a (Dis-)Honorable Mention for coming out against hiking the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, since apparently Arkansas is one of four states that somehow has a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum. Currently, you can work in Arkansas and only get paid $6.25 an hour. Who knew?

But the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week is Rob Andrews, House member from New Jersey. Andrews just resigned his seat, so that he could take a cushy job in the private sector and (more importantly) avoid a House Ethics Committee investigation into using campaign funds to travel to Scotland and Los Angeles, and (to boot) used his daughter's graduation party as a fundraiser.

We hope the Philadelphia law firm he just accepted a job with gets exactly what they're paying for. Ethics? We don't got to show you no steenkin' ethics!

[Representative Rob Andrews is now a private citizen, so no contact information will be provided, sorry.]


Volume 290 (2/7/14)

The Congressional Budget Office released a report this week which was actually pretty positive when it comes to the effects Obamacare will have on the American economy. You wouldn't have known it from the howling over on the Republican side, or from the members of the media who just repeat whatever Republicans are currently saying as if it were the truth.

There have been so many others who have so adequately debunked the Republican "sky is falling" rhetoric that we don't even have to go into the details of how wrong it is to say that "Obamacare will kill 2.5 million jobs." Suffice it to say that the Pinocchios are already flying fast and thick. Instead, we'd like to offer up some rebuttals Democrats might find handy in the upcoming week, because you just know Republicans are going to be lying about this from now until the election.

And then, at the end, a little update on how Republicans are doing at the whole "let's be more friendly to minorities" idea, just because.


   Obama's lowest deficit

The C.B.O. report didn't just deal with Obamacare...

"You know what got lost in all the noise after the C.B.O. released its report this week? The federal deficit is now projected to come it at $514 billion this year. That is down from $680 billion from last year, and down enormously from the whopping $1.4 trillion deficit that President Obama inherited when he entered office. President Obama has successfully lowered the deficit by almost two-thirds now, and I'm still waiting for Republicans to give him the tiniest shred of credit for doing so."


   Republicans used to be against "job lock" (part 1)

But, obviously, everyone wanted to talk about another part of the report.

"I'm not sure why Republicans are now so dead-set against giving Americans the freedom to leave a job they may be staying in only because they get health insurance. What's even more strange is that Republicans used to be for giving workers this freedom from what used to be called 'job lock.' Here is John McCain, from the 2008 campaign trail, for instance, and I quote: One of the biggest limitations of our current health care system is that leaving a job often means leaving your health care plan... job lock reduces opportunities for American workers because they often pass up new jobs for fear of losing their health care coverage. Unquote. McCain then went on to say that his plans for reforming health care solved the job lock problem by allowing options -- precisely the options the C.B.O. report identified."


   Republicans used to be against "job lock" (part 2)


"Don't believe me when I say that this entire concept was a Republican-supported idea? Here is none other than vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan addressing the issue, and I quote once again: We want to address job lock. So, the key question that ought to be addressed in any health care reform legislation, is are we going to continue job lock, or are we going to allow individuals more choice, and portability to fit the 21st century workforce? Unquote. Republicans were for choice and portability and freedom from job lock -- right up until it got included in Obamacare. Their hypocrisy now is simply astounding."


   Republicans used to be against "job lock" (part 3)

And finally...

"Don't believe McCain and Ryan? How about the Heritage Foundation? Are they conservative enough for you? Here's their take on things: 'Today, leaving a job or changing jobs means leaving behind the health insurance provided at the place of work. Individuals who wish to take a better job, change careers, or leave the workforce to raise a family or to retire early take substantial risks. They may find themselves going without coverage, purchasing non-group insurance with substantial tax penalties, or giving up a well-developed relationship with a physician or medical specialist. This health insurance obstacle to labor mobility is sometimes called job lock.' Heritage went on to praise McCain's plan for avoiding this, because 'individuals would no longer feel obligated to stay with their employers simply because they need to keep their employer-based health insurance.' Workers would have options, and subsidies to help with those options they chose: 'If the worker lost a job, changed jobs, or retired early, he or she could buy an insurance policy and offset its cost.' So can anyone tell me why this is now such a bad thing, when Republicans were gung-ho for solving job lock not so long ago?"


   Elmendorf sets the record straight

This is a two-for-one talking point. Below are two excerpts from the head of the Congressional Budget Office himself, Douglas Elmendorf, attempting to set the record straight on what the report actually says.

There is a critical difference between people who would like to work and can't find a job, or have a job that is lost for reasons beyond their control, and people who choose not to work. If someone comes up to you and says, "Well, the boss said I'm being laid off because we don't have enough business to pay me," that person feels bad about that and we sympathize with them for having lost their job. If someone comes to you and says, "I've decided to retire," or "I've decided to stay home and spend more time with my family," or "I've decided to spend more time doing my hobby" -- they don't feel bad about it, they feel good about it. And we don't sympathize, we say "congratulations." And we don't say they've lost their job, we say they've chosen to leave their job.

Elmendorf testifies, part 2 (from an article in the Huffington Post):

President Obama's health care reform law isn't going to kill 2.5 million jobs, Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf told the House Budget Committee on Wednesday.

One day after multiple media outlets misinterpreted a C.B.O. report on Obamacare, Elmendorf clarified the C.B.O.'s position during the hearing. The federal agency, Elmendorf said, had found Obamacare "spurs employment and would reduce unemployment over the next few years."

"When you boost demand for labor in this kind of economy, you actually reduce the unemployment rate, because those people who are looking for work can find more work?" Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked Elmendorf.

"Yes, that's right," Elmendorf responded.


   GOP minority outreach (part 1)

Every talking point this week seems to be a multi-part sort of issue, doesn't it?

"I see that Republicans are attempting some more minority outreach, as a state representative in Arizona just introduced legislation which would not only make it a crime for undocumented immigrant children to attend school, but would also make it illegal for any undocumented immigrant to -- get this -- use the public roads. Yes, you heard that right -- it would be a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on the second offense to 'drive while undocumented.' Oh, and if that weren't enough, the driver attempting such a nefarious crime would also have their vehicle forfeited as well. Way to go after the Latino vote, Republicans! Nothing like a little compassionate conservatism, eh?"


   GOP minority outreach (part 2): "Some of my best friends..."

And finally, a golden oldie, so to speak.

"Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas seems to have rather odd ideas of what minority outreach consists of as well. When addressing President Obama's nominee for Surgeon General, Roberts decided to extend an invitation to Dodge City in the only way it appears he knew how to. He said, and I quote: I'm going to invite you, because we have a lovely doctor from India. She's in her mid-30s, and she's highly respected by the community. And another doctor from India that did my carpal tunnel when I did a stupid thing. And so, I think you'd be right at home, and we would welcome you. Unquote. According to Pat Roberts, there's no reason for an Indian-American doctor to get out of Dodge, because some of his best friends are doctors from India. I mean, seriously, what decade is it? This is how Republicans speak to someone not of their own ethnicity in the year 2014? Really?"

-- Chris Weigant


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