Saturday, July 12, 2014

Editorial: Next Stop Single Payer

The infamous Hobby Lobby decision satisfied nobody. On June 30 five old men on the Supreme Court decided that corporate owners can overrule physicians and insurance regulators over whether their female employees can receive contraceptive treatment.

The court majority agreed with attorneys for Hobby Lobby Inc. and other bosses who claim that the contraceptive “mandate” imposed by the US Department of Health and Human Services as part of the Affordable Care Act was a “substantial burden” on the religious freedoms of their closely-held corporations and violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, there is no precedent on behalf of the majority’s assertion that secular, for-profit corporations can be “persons” under RFRA. “The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities,” she wrote.

The Hobby Lobby ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, seemed to allow closely-held corporations to object to four specific types of birth control — including IUDs and Plan B — because the business owners inaccurately if sincerely consider them to cause abortion. (The contraceptives at issue prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into the lining of the uterus. A woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo successfully implants in the lining of the uterus. The only drug approved to induce abortion is RU-486 and it is not on the FDA’s list of approved contraception.)

A day after Hobby Lobby, the Court’s resolve began to crack. On July 1, the court indicated that its ruling also applies to for-profit employers who object to any of the 20 forms of birth control included in the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, not just the four methods at issue in the Hobby Lobby case. The Court ordered three appeals courts to reconsider cases in which they had rejected challenges from corporations that object to providing insurance that covers any contraceptive services at all.

And the Court in the Hobby Lobby case seemed to validate the ultimate goal of providing contraceptives when Justice Alito wrote for the majority that the government had to use the “least restrictive alternative.” That means that if there is a less burdensome way to implement the law, it needs to be used. The majority pointed to a workaround the administration had come up with to accommodate religious nonprofits. If there are objections to a medical treatment, third parties will provide coverage to the employees.

In case of contraceptives, the nonprofits must fill out a document that declares that paying for any or all of the 20 devices and methods approved by government regulators would violate their religious beliefs. Then their insurers or third-party administrators would take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control, and would get reimbursed by the government through credits against fees owed under other parts of the health law.

But many groups still object that filling out the government Form 700 is akin to signing a permission slip for evil activity.

In an unsigned order issued July 3, moments before they adjourned for their summer recess, the Court suggested that the nonprofit workaround might also be unconstitutional. “Overnight, the cure has become the disease,” Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West wrote in (July 4). “Having explicitly promised that Hobby Lobby would go no further than Hobby Lobby, the court went back on its word, then skipped town for the summer.”

In the new case, the Court granted Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois, a temporary exemption from the requirement that it use Form 700. The Court said the interim order would not affect the ability of employees and students to obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives, since the government already knew the college objected.

More than four dozen faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals that oppose some or all contraception as immoral have filed lawsuits to relieve them of the obligation to pay, even indirectly, for birth control.

“Anything that forces unwilling religious believers to be part of the system is not going to pass the test,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents many of the faith-affiliated nonprofits, told the Associated Press. Hobby Lobby Inc. also is a Becket Fund client.

The Supreme Court will be asked to take on the issue in its next term, which begins in October.

The Wheaton College injunction drew a furious reaction from the three female Justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” Justice Sotomayor wrote in the dissent. “Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”

The Court’s action, she added, even “undermines confidence in this institution.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote that the majority, which acted on an emergency application, had not only introduced pointless complexity into an already byzantine set of regulations but had also revised its Hobby Lobby decision.

Justice Sotomayor said the ruling reached beyond Wheaton and could lead to similar results at many other nonprofit religious organizations that have similar concerns. “The issuance of an injunction in this case will presumably entitle hundreds or thousands of other objectors to the same remedy,” she wrote.

“Not everyone was fooled by the majority’s promise that the decision in Hobby Lobby was narrow,” Lithwick and West wrote. “But the speed with which the Court has loosened the dam on this is stunning. While the court has told us that we are not allowed to question the sincerity of corporations’ professed religious beliefs, we remain free to question the sincerity of the Court’s pinky promise that the Hobby Lobby decision would have a limited scope. At the end of this term, many people sighed a breath of relief that the outcome of Hobby Lobby was not as bad as we’d feared. It will be.”

Senate Democrats have floated a bill to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision, but in the face of Republican intransigence they might as well move toward single-payer health coverage so that businesses and religious organizations don’t have to worry about being complicit in the medical procedures their employees get.

There are bills in Congress, including Rep. John Conyers’ longrunning HR 676 and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ S 1782, that would expand Medicare to cover everybody, but they are given practically no chance of going anywhere. However, the Affordable Care Act allows states to seek waivers to implement their own single-payer plans starting in 2017. Vermont has enacted such a plan and is working on its Green Mountain Care, with the main challenge being how to pay for the estimated $2 billion cost (which would still be less than the $2.5 billion Vermonters pay in private premiums and out-of-pocket for health care).

To get the waiver, a state must demonstrate that its public option would provide coverage at least as good, for at least as many people, as the ACA would, and not add costs to the federal budget. The federal government would provide funds to the state that equal what it would spend under the ACA. For Public Citizen’s “Road Map to ‘Single Payer’,” see (

Ultimately, with the court teetering on a 5-4 balance, the threadbare Hobby Lobby decision underscores the importance of Democrats keeping control of the Senate this November. The right vacancy on the court in the next two years could clear the way to reverse a decade of bad decisions. But not if Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is Judiciary chairman. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014
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Selections from the August 1, 2014 issue

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ranking the presidents since World War II shows what a sorry lot they have been

By Marc Jampole

A recent survey found that a sampling of about 1,300 Americans rank Ronald Reagan as our best president since World War II and Barack Obama as the worst—just nosing out that supreme incompetent George W. Bush AKA Bush II.  

I’m not sure what goes into the thinking of most people, but if we judge the presidents on the good and bad they did, the direction into which they guided the country and the competence with which they led, Reagan should rank as the third worst president since World War II—and alas, also the third worst president ever.

Let’s start with our worst president since Roosevelt and also our worst president of all time—and it’s not even close. Harry Truman earns this dubious distinction by virtue of ordering the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People make excuses for these barbarous acts which led to the slaughter of the largest and second largest number of human beings in a day’s time in recorded history. Apologists say that Truman saved more American lives than the bombs took, which is absurd on the surface, since Japan was already reeling and had already proposed virtually the same terms that they took at the final surrender. Estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 killed by the only two atom bombs ever used on human beings. How could subduing Japan with conventional airstrikes of munitions factories and military bases taken as many lives? The almost smarmy assertion that dropping the bombs saved lives also neglects the fact that the American lives supposedly saved were soldiers, whereas most of those actually killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were neither soldiers nor workers in war factories, but innocent civilians.

Outside of dropping the bombs, Truman’s record is pretty shabby: He helped to start the cold war. He selected nuclear power over solar as the primary energy source for the government to support. He nationalized steel factories to stop a strike. He let Joe McCarthy walk all over the country and tacitly approved the red scare.

Let’s move on to Bush II. Rating Bush II as a worse president than Ronald Reagan is a tough call, because they are the two ideologues most responsible for the economic mess we’re in. In a sense, Bush II completed the Reagan revolution.

But Bush II led an incompetent regime that pretty much botched everything it touched.  His team was asleep at the wheel when the 9/11 attacks hit. The response included two of the most ill-conceived and expensive wars in history, two wars that destabilized the powder keg that is the Middle East and led to a worldwide loss of trust in and respect for the United States. Bush II established a torture gulag across the globe and a spy state at home. Bush II tax cuts starved the country of much needed funds to invest in the future and help the needy. His handling of Hurricane Katrina displayed both incompetence and disregard for suffering.

Any discussion of Ronald Reagan should start with the fact that he and his team were traitors who should have been placed on trial for crimes against the United States. I’m referring to the deal with Iran which kept our hostages in captivity for months longer than they had to be, only so Reagan could defeat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. What the Reagan Administration did for Iran in return seems unconscionable to a patriot: we sold weapons of warfare. And what did Reagan do with the money from arms sales to a country the president said was our enemy?  He funded a civil war in Nicaragua.

Even without this treachery, Reagan would still rank among our three worst presidents of all time. He was the leader of the turn in American politics around 1980 that has led us down a disastrous path. The economic plan of Reaganism called for and produced an enormous shift in wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy over a 30+ year period that continues. His game plan included all the reasons the rich have so much and the rest of us are struggling: lowering taxes on the wealthy and businesses; weakening laws that protect unions; privatizing government services; cutting social services; and gutting Social Security.

Reagan also asked the country to stick its head in the ground ostrich-like and ignore how our fossil-fuel dependent economy was degrading the earth and threatening our future.

Now that we have disposed of the truly incompetent and/or evil presidents, I want to reverse the order of presentation by naming Lyndon Baines Johnson as the best president we have had since FDR.  If we take away the Viet Nam War, it’s an easy call—Johnson would rank with Lincoln as our greatest of leaders.  He passed the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. He started food stamps, work study, Head Start and a slew of other anti-poverty programs that worked, no matter how much right-wingers want to rewrite history. He passed the most generous education bill and the strictest gun control law in American history. Under Johnson, the space program thrived and it was only a cruel twist of fate that postponed the first moon landing until early in Nixon’s first term.

Of course there have always been stories afloat about Johnson fixing elections early in his career or practicing crony capitalism (as if any president since Andrew Johnson hasn’t?). But that he was essentially a decent man comes out again and again, and especially in that transcendent moment when he learned that the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King and he hit the roof and ordered it stopped immediately. This ultimate wielder of power knew better than most that power must be restrained in a free society.

Unfortunately, there is the Viet Nam War, which he inherited from Eisenhower and Kennedy and bequeathed to Richard Nixon. Viet Nam crystallized all the contradictions of America’s Cold War policies: imperialism parading as idealism, exaggeration of the threat from the Soviet Union and an inability to view the world from any other perspective except that of large multinational corporations. I don’t mean to absolve Johnson—he made the decisions to escalate and bomb. It was a major flaw that disfigures Johnson as a historical figure and sullies the rest of his accomplishments.

After Johnson, I select two presidents who were pretty mediocre, but ruled over good times, made no enormous blunders and led competent administrations that did a fairly good job of running the country on a day-to-day basis and responding to the occasional disaster. If you read the labels most pundits put on these two men, you would think they were miles apart of political spectrum, but if you instead review their stands, you find them fairly close indeed. Both were centrist on social policy and both continued the imperialistic foreign policy that has guided the country since Roosevelt.  I’m talking about stodgy Republican Dwight Eisenhower and rock-star Democrat Bill Clinton. I personally favor Clinton because he tried to pass single-payer health insurance and presided over a relative shrinking of the U.S. military and U.S. militarism.

How is it possible that the evil genius of Richard Nixon can rank as high as fourth among recent presidents? His illegal actions in Southeast Asia and extension of the Viet Nam War were disgraceful. His dirty tricks and domestic spying shook the country by being the first visible signs that technology and centralized power could quickly reduce us to a police state. But Nixon also opened China, set wage and price controls, continued Johnson’s poverty and education programs and established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. He also ran a competent administration that responded with reason and rationality to most challenges, except, unfortunately, the war and Nixon’s political intrigues.

Nixon was a despicable human being by virtually all accounts, so it’s a little painful to rate him above four essentially likable men, none of whom had the competence to pursue their agendas: Carter, Obama, Kennedy and Ford. I find parts of the vision of all four of these men problematic: Carter was in favor of globalization without protections for U.S. workers or the environment. Obama is basically a pro-business, anti-union liberal who shares the consensus view that the United States should have special rights in world affairs. Kennedy was a militaristic cold-warrior who fervently believed in cutting taxes on his economic class—the ultra wealthy. Ford basically was a continuation of Eisenhower and Nixon, a pro-business cold-warrior open to compromise with progressives on social issues.  None of these men had a great impact because none knew how to work the system like Johnson or Nixon.

That leaves us with Bush I, who is to Reagan what Ford is to Nixon-Eisenhower, a continuation. Bush I was a little more effective than Carter or Obama, but his policies kept us down the path to greater inequality.

Here, then is the OpEdge ranking of presidents since 1945. Of these 12 white males, only three would rank in the top half of all our presidents. Again, I rate the bottom three as the three most disastrous presidencies in American history:
  1. Lyndon Johnson
  2. Bill Clinton
  3. Dwight Eisenhower
  4. Richard Nixon
  5. Jimmy Carter
  6. Barack Obama
  7. John F. Kennedy
  8. Gerald Ford
  9. Bush I
  10.  Ronald Reagan
  11. Bush II
  12. Harry Truman

It’s the times that usually make the man or woman, and not the other way around. These men represented ideas that those with wealth and influence found attractive. Donors, their parties and the think tanks funded by big individual and corporate money shaped their views. It was General Electric money, after all, that helped turn Ronald Reagan from a New Dealer to the symbol of the politics of selfishness. None of these men would have found support if they didn’t buy into the basic premises of American foreign policy over the past century. 

Since World War II we have made three major wrong turns as a country: The first was to create the cold war and continue to assert America’s divine right to intervene anywhere around the world at any time. The second was to ignore the threat of environmental degradation and resource shortages and build our economy on wasteful consumerism powered by fossil fuels. The third was to turn our back on the mixed-model social democracy that we began to establish from 1932-1976 or so and return to economic rules that favored the interests of the wealthy over everyone else’s. We probably would have taken these treacherous paths no matter who we had elected president.