Thursday, January 31, 2013

Golden Opportunity? Or Yellow Flag?

Ah, the times... They are a changin'. I wonder if Bob Dylan ever saw this coming.

The Nevada Republican Party has come out in favor of immigration reform including a path to citizenship.

That's what The Atlantic's (and former Nevada based reporter) Molly Ball just tweeted. I wonder why they released this statement today. I'm sure it has nothing to do with providing cover for Dean Heller, and potentially Joe Heck, to support comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). (/snark)

I mean, it couldn't be that Nevada Republicans are desperate...

“Why the sudden change, Republicans?” Jon Stewart said. “Perhaps you looked into your hearts and realized that people who are willing to risk prison or worse just to do our least glamorous, most dangerous work deserve at least a basic level of humanity.”

Or, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put it recently, Republicans lost the Hispanic vote badly in 2012.

“Okay, or that,” Stewart said. “That’s another reason. Craven political calculation to squeeze out enough votes to make Nevada competitive again. Okay, that’s okay, too. Not sure that’s the reason you’re supposed to say out loud, but you’ve come a long way. Well, you’ve come a way. Yes, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward shamelessness.”

Party leaders must be waking up & smelling the political napalm. They don't want to be seen as obstructing progress. And they don't want to risk forever alienating the vast majority of Latin@ voters.

However, there's a problem with their plan. Their base still wants nothing to do with CIR.

Echoing the 47 percent rhetoric that plagued Mitt Romney during the election, immigration opponents have panned the Senate framework for a tough road to legalization as “amnesty” or a “pointless” attempt to attract Latinos to the Republican party.

Many of these groups played a role in defeating the last attempt at immigration reform in 2007. Numbers USA, a group founded by anti-immigration activist John Tanton, slammed the Senate discussions as “amnesty 2.0″ and pledged to defeat it, while another of Tanton’s groups, FAIR, directed membership to tell Congress “how ridiculous it is.”

The National Review rejected immigration reform as “pointless” in a staff editorial, where they claimed Hispanics would never be welcomed in the Republican party [...]

Some Republican lawmakers have rejected reform, as well. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) called Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) “naive” and “nuts” to allow a path for legalization, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took a predictably similar hard line. As the House begins to craft its own plan, longtime reform opponents Lamar Smith (R-TX), the former House Judiciary Chair and Lou Barletta (R-PA) claimed it amounted to “amnesty.”

As we've discussed before, the "TEA" driven Republican base still can't stand CIR. And it may still cause a major obstacle in the House. That's why national Republican leaders have been trying desperately to quell "tea party" anger and extremism on immigration. But will assurances from the likes of Marco Rubio and John McCain be enough to stop the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter from stirring up "tea party" opposition to CIR? This is the dilemma that both Nevada Republicans and national Republicans still face.

And then, there's the actual policy behind the politics. While some Republican politicians suddenly want to look "moderate" on CIR, it's still an open question as to how they will actually vote. Take, for instance, what John McCain has actually said about addressing the plight of LGBTQ families in what's supposed to be comprehensive immigration reform.

The United States is home to at least 28,500 same-sex couples in which one partner is a citizen and the other is not, but federal law does not recognize these relationships and prohibits gay and lesbian couples from seeking visas on the basis of same-sex unions. The Obama administration’s framework would allow couples to apply for visas on the basis of their permanent unions, while the bipartisan senate principles do not.

“I think it is a red herring. I think then, do we want to guarantee a tax payer free abortion?” McCain asked in response to a question about the provision from Politico’s Mike Allen. “I’m telling you now, if you love this up with social issues and things that are controversial, the it will endanger the issue. ”

He added, “I’ll be glad to talk about, discuss it, what the ramifications are, but if someone does that as the most important aspect of comprehensive immigration reform, then we just have a fundamental disagreement.” “Which is more important, LGBT or border security?” McCain finally said.

Oh yes, he actually said that. Is he really that dense? Sorry, but this makes me question just how committed he and these other Republican "Gang of 8" Senators actually are to comprehensive immigration reform. Couple this with what Marco Dubious told Rush Limbaugh said about earned citizenship earlier this week, and we at least have some yellow flags worth monitoring.

And this may very well add to Dean Heller's dilemma. Earlier today, Harry Reid met with President Obama to discuss CIR. He's apparently cool with the President's blueprint, and the "Gang of 8" Democrats will face pressure from progressives who'd like for their plan to adhere closely to it. If progressives succeed on matters like a real pathway to citizenship and addressing LGBTQ immigrants, will Heller still support the bill? Or will he fall prey to the "tea party" siren song of "NO ILLEGALS!!!"?

So are Nevada Republicans truly evolving on CIR? And for that matter, are national Republicans? Their recent flowery language will be put to the test this spring.

And It's Back!

Just minutes ago, the Nevada Supreme Court issued its ruling on The Education Initiative. And public education activists can now rejoice.

In a unanimous opinion issued Thursday, justices rejected arguments that the petition was flawed. It will now go to the 2013 Legislature, and more likely to voters in 2014.

The measure was pushed by the state teachers union and other labor groups. They argued it would raise $800 million a year for education and supporters gathered more than 150,000 signatures to send the proposal to state lawmakers.

But a pro-business organization challenged the measure, arguing a required 200-word description of what it would do was misleading because it doesn’t guarantee more money for education.

Justices, however, said the description need not articulate every possible ramification.

Frankly, I'm surprised. While I felt the district court ruling would be overturned, I wasn't expecting a unanimous decision. This definitely settles the legal issues for good. Education activists can now look forward to the next step, which starts next week.

We've discussed the legal case against The Education Initiative before. It was truly quite flimsy. Basically, "Tea Party, Inc." lawyers were hoping to trap it in a "legal Catch 22" where its efforts to abide by Nevada's "single subject rule" actually disqualified it. I guess Nevada's Supremes were having none of it.

But now comes a bigger hurdle. Next week, the 77th session of the Nevada Legislature begins. And legislators will have to decide what to do with this initiative. If they approve, then it becomes law this year. But if they don't approve the specific language of this initiative, it will go to "We the People" on next year's general election ballot.

Already, some legislators are sounding queasy about it. Too bad. "We the People" seem to same the kind of tax reform offered by this initiative (as opposed to the usual deform offered by the Legislature). And the facts on the ground dictate that we must do a better job of investing in our people.

So either legislators will need to think hard about what the Nevada Supreme Court is handing them... Or they will have to explain to voters next year why they are punting to us. Either way, we will finally see an opportunity to start fixing Nevada's broken public infrastructure and failed tax code. And that's something progressives can be thankful for today.

A Sober Reality Check on Gun Violence

So it happened again. We saw yet another shooting yesterday. This time, it hit very close to home.

For years Jim McCarty hid whatever troubles that may have weighed on him behind the rhythms of normalcy.

He lived in a single-story home with his wife and her two children at 2225 La Sombra Street, an aging residential neighborhood. Neighbors say he never missed a day of work as a tractor-trailer driver, leaving each morning at 7 a.m. and coming home at 5 p.m. like clockwork. When he wasn’t at work, they saw him obsessing over his lawn making sure it stayed lush and green despite the dry desert heat. He loved that lawn.

Work and the yard, the “everyman” routine. They were his constants — until Tuesday.

That day, Catrina Garrett, who lives across the street from the family, noticed he missed work. Then, around 3:45 p.m., next-door neighbor Andrew Newkirk heard gunshots. [...]

The Clark County Coroner’s Office identified the first two victims as Jim McCarty’s stepchildren, Bonnie Scherrer, 38, and Robert Scherrer, 41. The third victim, neighbors say, is his wife, Linda McCarty.

It is impossible to know what may have caused McCarty to snap and allegedly shoot his family and then himself, but neighbors who know the family well say underneath his routine was a bleak life.

Believe it or not, gun deaths often occur by way of victims' own guns. Accidents happens. And then in this case, Jim McCarty turned his gun on his own family, then on himself.

This wasn't a topic discussed at yesterday's US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun safety, but plenty of other issues were brought to the table. What was perhaps most chilling about yesterday's hearing was how the typical decorum of a Senate hearing was interrupted by reminders of all the recent bloodshed from epic gun violence. Salon
's Joan Walsh has more.

I’m sure he never dreamed that barely a month later the carnage would claim a 15-year-old majorette who’d just marched in his inaugural parade. Hadiya Pendleton is only one of 42 people to die of gun violence in Chicago this month, the deadliest January in 10 years. And there’s still another day to go.

Nor did he likely envision that a popular school bus driver in rural Alabama would be killed by a man the Southern Poverty Law Center listed as an anti-government “survivalist,” after he tried to stop him from taking two boys off his bus as hostage (he wound up getting one, a six year old who’s still his prisoner.) The rampage after an office dispute in Phoenixis a little more common: Too many “office disputes” are settled by gunfire.

Hadiya Pendleton’s godfather had a searing if unintended rejoinder to LaPierre’s post-Newtown nonsense that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Duane Stewart, a police officer, told the Chicago Sun-Times about his happy honor-student god-daughter: “As usual, the bad guy aims, but he never hits the other bad guy . . . He hits the one that hurts the most to lose. I changed her diapers, I played with her growing up. My heart is broken.” [...]

But the same forces that block sensible gun laws also block action on other social problems. We have too many guns in this country; we also have too much poverty and inequality and mental illness, and they’re all tied together. It’s galling to watch LaPierre and others on the right pretend they care about mental health treatment, for instance. The same political stalemate that’s blocked action on guns has also made it harder to deal with other social problems that fracture us. While Hadiya Pendleton went to a good school and was shot in an upper middle class neighborhood not far from the president’s Chicago home, her assailants are reportedly gang members, and the plague of gang violence —which springs from generations of chronic, festering and unanswered urban poverty and violence –has been ignored for too long because it rarely touches the people deemed to matter in our country.

Durbin mentioned Pendleton during the hearing, noting that her inaugural parade appearance was “the highlight of her young life.” Then she returned to a city “awash in guns,” he said. “The confiscation of guns per capita in Chicago is six times the number in New York City,” said Durbin. “We have guns everywhere and some believe the solution to this is more guns. I disagree.”

Gabby Giffords didn’t mention Pendleton in her moving testimony, but she did talk about children. “Too many children are dying. Too many children,” Giffords said haltingly. “We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

Last night, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) was on "Ralston Reports" last night to discuss a variety of issues. One of them was gun safety. And while noting the unique challenge of tailoring gun laws to Nevada, he nonetheless made clear why President Obama and various Members of Congress are pursuing gun safety reform.

No one is talking about doing what's described in the gun lobby's crazed conspiracy theories. Rather, Congress is debating common-sense gun safety measures meant to protect communities. It's about preventing unnecessary deaths. It's about taking basic steps to stop the slaughter of innocent children.

The New Republic's Walter Kirn is a gun owner himself. He recently wrote about his own experience with guns, and he explained why he and many more gun owners really don't see eye to eye with NRA lobbyists. Are military style assault weapons actually necessary for "recreational shooting" and deer hunting? Are background checks really "unreasonable"? Is gun trafficking truly a "civil right"?

That's all we're talking about. And that's what Members of Congress should keep in mind... That, and the continuing count of people who've lost their lives to gun violence.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pay Attention, Senators.

Earlier today, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited a very special guest to testify. And her testimony was quite moving, even with it lasting less than two minutes.

"Thank you for inviting me here today. This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you."

Gabrielle Giffords knows firsthand the pain of gun violence and the horror of a mass shooting. She was nearly assassinated just over two years ago, when she represented Southern Arizona in Congress and was conducting a "Congress at Your Corner" event just north of Tucson. While Giffords survived the shooting, eight other people passed away. Her husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, explained to the committee the impact of the Tucson Massacre, the shock following the Newtown massacre, and why they & other gun owners support common sense gun safety reform.

Of course, the latter particularly frightens the NRA. After all, they claim to be the monolithic voice of America's gun owners. And they really don't like being called out on their nonsenical, idiotic "ideas".

"My problem with background checks is you are never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks. And all the law-abiding people, you'll create an enormous federal bureaucracy, unfunded, hitting all the little people in the country, will have to go through it, pay the fees, pay the taxes," LaPierre said. "We don't even prosecute anybody right now that goes through the system we have. So, we're going to make all those law-abiding people go through the system and then we aren't going to prosecute any of the bad guys if they do catch one. None of it makes any sense in the real world. We have 80,000 police families in the NRA. We care about safety. We support what works."

After a brief interlude by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the committee chairman, Durbin went after LaPierre.

"Mr. LaPierre, that's the point," Durbin fired back. "The criminals won't go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. We'll stop them from original purchase. You missed that point completely. It's basic."

Strangely enough, as the hearing continued and Mark Kelly was being questioned, news broke of another Arizona shooting. This time, it was at an office complex in Phoenix. So far, three people have been wounded.

Truth can so often be so much stranger than fiction.

Before today's hearing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-It's Complicated) insisted he will bring gun safety legislation to the Senate floor. Yet so far, he still hasn't said whether he would vote for the Assault Weapons Ban favored by his good friends, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) & President Obama. We don't even know for sure how he will vote on universal background checks & efforts to curb illegal gun trafficking.

Meanwhile, Nevada's other Senator, Dean Heller (R-46%), has hardly said a peep on gun safety since Newtown. Even with a mountain of evidence illustrating the need for gun safety reform along with overwhelming public support for it, Heller has kept his silence. Wait, isn't "Senator No Labels Postpartisan" supposed to ditch his "tea party" past in favor of a "moderate" new agenda? Well, now is a good time for both Heller and Reid to demonstrate that.

Hopefully, at least some of their staff are paying close attention to today's hearing. This should be a learning experience for the entire US Senate.

Double Dip Drama

So far this month, politicians on Capitol Hill have been breathing sighs of relief as various manufactured fiscal crises have been averted at the last minute. And at first, it looked like the economy has been humming along just fine despite the DC drama. However, today it looks like earlier assumptions may have to be thrown out the window. Believe it or not, the early Commerce Department Fourth Quarter economic report actually showed the economy contracted by 0.1%

So what happened?

First, federal defense spending fell at an astounding 22.2 percent annual rate in the quarter, which subtracted 1.28 percentage points from GDP growth. That was in part a reversal from the unusual 12.9 percent gain in the third quarter. But when the two quarters are averaged together, the defense sector was a drag on the economy in the second half of 2012 —and that’s before a “sequester” of automatic defense cuts goes into effect this year if Congress doesn’t act to avert it. The volatility in defense spending —and consequences for economic growth- -are a reminder of the impact that may be seen in the future as federal spending cuts go into effect.

The second major drag on growth was from businesses inventories. Firms drew down their inventories by more than $40 billion, which subtracted 1.25 percentage points from GDP growth. In effect, by selling goods sitting on their store shelves and in their warehouses, production in the nation’s farms and factories was not as high as one might expect given consumer spending.

The good news, though, is that the effect from inventories should go away in future quarters; businesses can’t simply run down their inventories forever. final sales, which adds inventories back in, rose at a 1.15 percent rate. [...]

GDP is the broadest measure of economic output, aiming to capture the value of goods and services produced within U.S. borders during a given time. The data over the last three years paint a portrait of an economy stuck in a pattern of steady growth, neither break out into a sharp enough pattern of expansion to push down joblessness nor to fall into a new recession.

Still, there are some reasons for concern in 2013. While consumption spending held up in the final months of 2012, that was before an increase in the payroll tax took effect in January. And negotiations over the sequester could result in steep cuts in defense and other government spending in the months ahead, putting further downward pressure on GDP.

Now this is an early estimate, and the Commerce Department may revise this figure as more data comes in. And it looks like one-time events like inventory drawdowns and wild swings of military spending temporarily threw the GDP out of whack. Excluding inventory, real GDP sales actually rose by 1.1% last quarter.

However, we still can't feel too sanguine about this. The report also suggested that Washington's austerity fetish is harming economic recovery. While much of what happened last quarter may be temporary blips on the radar screen, we may also be seeing real warning signs going forward.

So why did we see slight contraction in the GDP? In large part because spending cuts -- federal, state, and local -- shaved more than a full percentage point off GDP growth.

I realize the right doesn't want to hear or believe this, but when Washington spends far less -- in this case, the cuts focused on defense -- it takes capital out of the economy and undermines growth. It is, as a practical matter, a form austerity, which helps hit the brakes on the economy. This is Economics 101 and yet Republicans continue to insist that it is the only policy they really care about.

It's something to keep in mind as the Beltway's preoccupation with debt reduction, not the recovery, continues unabated. It's also a reminder that the automatic sequestration cuts may very well push the nation closer to a recession this year.

For nearly four years, Europe has been ravaged by fiscal austerity. As European governments, especially in "The Eurozone" (where the Euro is used as currency), have been slashing their budgets, unemployment has skyrocketed as GDP plummeted. Many economists have been chiding "The Eurozone" for engaging in way too much austerity that's only exacerbated their "Great Recession"... And they've been warning us not to repeat this mistake.

Yet despite this, Republican Congresscritters like Nevada's own Mark Amodei keep calling for more "drama" in the form of government shutdowns and "Fiscal Cliff" budget slashing. Remember that this is essentially the American version of "Eurozone Austerity". And the more we engage in this activity, the more likely we are to actually fall into "double-dip recession".

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Art of the Deal) seems confident that Republicans will cave (again) on "The Fiscal Cliff". Now, many economists are hoping his recent words will soon come to pass. Even when inventory is excluded, GDP still only grew by 1.1% last quarter. And if we fall "off the cliff" this year, we may see at least 0.7% worth of GDP growth shaved off this year. Can Nevada's & America's economy truly handle any more fiscal drama?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Happens in Vegas

We're not even halfway through the week yet, and already it feels so momentous. All of a sudden, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) has transformed from a distant policy wonk pipe dream into a real possibility in the 113th Congress. The Senate made its first move Sunday night, and today is President Obama's turn to make some noise.

And make noise he did at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.

What's really fascinating about today's big revelation is just how much Mr. President is now willing to stick his neck out for a truly comprehensive bill. And yes, that includes a group of immigrants who don't always get talked about but nonetheless exist. Today, President Obama demanded a CIR package that addresses LGBTQ immigrant families.

A Democratic source said: "Same-sex couples will be part of his proposal." A second source confirmed that, unlike the Senate framework released Monday, same-sex bi-national couples — those with one American and one foreign partner — will be included in the White House principles.

The decision by Obama seeks to remedy what advocates for same-sex couples view as one of the most searing inequalities under the existing federal limit on marriage to one man and one woman: LGBT American citizens simply have no way to confer citizenship on their romantic partners, something that is automatic — if not always simple — for straight couples.

Under current law, such same-sex couples, even when married under state law, are not eligible for the green cards that opposite-sex couples can receive. Foreign partners of same-sex couples have in the past found their green card applications denied — often forcing couples to separate or move abroad.

Apparently, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) had agreed to ditch inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) in the Senate immigration "grand bargain" because he didn't want to risk losing Republican votes. So far, he's said a UAFA amendment will be allowed in committee, but there's no guarantee it can pass.

Today, President Obama signaled his willingness to at least bypass this part of the "Gang of 8" compromise and fight for immigration equality. In addition, he stressed the need to act with fairness. And he stressed the need to act without prejudice.

When debating who is allowed the privilege of being a United States citizen, "it's easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of us versus them," Obama said in Las Vegas, Nevada. "And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them. We forget that. It is really important for us to remember our history. Unless you are one of the first Americans, Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you."

Obama continued: "When each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here they did their part to build the nation."

Another firm line in the sand that President Obama drew was on an earned path to citizenship. Today, Obama signaled that he wants to see one, a real one. Some Congressional Republicans have been declaring the new Senate bill to be "amnesty", while some immigrant rights activists have wondered if the Senate bill can realistically deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Today, Obama made clear that he wants a realistic way to fairly treat these people.

Oh, and President Obama also included more border security and labor law enforcement in his CIR proposal. However, he also reiterated what his administration has already done on security & enforcement. We'll have to see if he can go along with the "security triggers" in the Senate bill (or if he tries to change them).

And we'll have to see how Obama's overall plan meshes with the new Senate deal. So far, they seem to be mostly alike. There are just a few key policy differences, such as inclusion of LGBTQ families and the path to earned citizenship, that will need to be worked out.

The biggest difference was on border security. Obama, like the Gang of Eight in the Senate, called for a set of technological and personnel investments to prevent illegal immigration as well as a streamlined process to track people who overstay their visa illegally. But the Senate’s plan included an additional requirement that border security measures go into effect before currently undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card, a prerequisite to citizenship. It also would create a commission of Southwestern officials and community leaders to monitor the implementation of the security measures, although senators suggested it would not have veto power over the “trigger” for permanent residency applications.

On citizenship, both Obama and the senators suggested an earned path in which current undocumented immigrants would have to pay a fine, back taxes, pass a background check, and wait until green card backlogs had been cleared by legal immigrants before being considered for permanent residency. The details on this process are critical, since experts warn that the current visa system could delay citizenship for many undocumented workers by decades —perhaps even a lifetime — without further changes. [...]

“We all agree these men and women should have to earn their way to citzenship, but for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a path to citizenship,” Obama said. The president added that it “won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process”

We'll also have to see where Harry Reid falls in this debate. So far, he's generally been supportive of the Senate deal. But now that President Obama has his own guidelines (and he wants to see them fulfilled in whatever finally emerges from Congress), will Reid be OK with tweaking the Senate bill to keep the President and progressives on board?

And finally, there's the issue of the Republicans. Dean Heller so far likes the Senate bill. Will he ultimately vote for it, even if it's been tweaked? And we've yet to hear a peep out of the usually loquacious Joe Heck. And of course, there's the matter of House Speaker John Boehner allowing any CIR bill to even reach the House floor.

So today has been quite the eventful day here in Southern Nevada. We'll just have to see if what happens in Vegas can finally turn the DREAM (Act and the rest of CIR) into reality.

Return of VAWA?

It's gone. It's done. It's back?

Last we checked on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), it was left to expire as the 112th Congress failed to renew it. House Republicans, like Nevada's own Joe Heck, killed it because of "tea party" animosity toward LGBTQ women and women of color. Even as many Senate Republicans, like Nevada's own Dean Heller, crossed over to pass the Senate VAWA renewal, the House G-O-TEA faction nonetheless pressured their leaders to kill the bill.

But now, it's back. A bipartisan group of US Senators have reintroduced VAWA in their chamber. And Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) has some strong language for "tea party" Republicans who are trying to kill this bill (again).

“The fate of the Violence Against Women Act still lays squarely on the shoulders of Eric Cantor and John Boehner. To date they have refused to listen to countless law enforcement and women’s groups as well as moderate voices in their own party in the House and Senate who’ve said we need to pass the Senate’s bipartisan bill that extends protections to millions of new women.

“In a new Congress, on a newly reintroduced bill, the House Republican leadership faces the same choice. They can either kowtow [to] those on the far right of their caucus who would turn battered women away from care, or they can stand with Democrats, moderate Republicans, and the many millions of Americans who believe that who a person loves, where they live, or their immigration status shouldn’t determine whether they are protected from violence.

“In the days ahead, I encourage the moderate Republican voices in the House to call on their leadership to pass the bipartisan Senate bill. Too many women have been left vulnerable while House Republican leaders have played politics.”

So what have we heard lately from House Republican leadership? Wait, what was that? [crickets]

[...] House Republican leaders remain silent on how they intend to proceed, which suggests that there has not been a breakthrough since last year, when the bill fell prey to the House GOP’s resistance to expand coverage to gays, illegal immigrants and Native Americans who have suffered domestic abuse. [...]

The [now fast-tracked Senate VAWA] puts pressure on House Republicans to act on the widely popular measure, which expired in 2011 but has continued to receive funding through the appropriations process. House Democrats have introduced the same bill as the Senate. It eliminates a provision from last year’s Senate-passed bill which raised revenue. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) cited that provision in declining to move on the bill. Revenue-raising measures must originate in the House, according to the Constitution. By stripping out that language, proponents hope to deny Boehner use of that procedural objection.

So far, House Republican leaders have been mum on the issue. Two House GOP leadership aides did not respond to requests for comment.

There's broad bipartisan support for VAWA. Last year, the Senate passed it 68-31. Why can't the House pass this badly needed legislation?

As long as the House keeps dodging on this, we'll keep highlighting it here. Why should millions of American women be left vulnerable to prolonged domestic violence? Because teabaggers don't like queer folk and Native American communities? Seriously?

Joe Heck and other House Republicans throw a temper tantrum whenever anyone points out their War on Women agenda. If they actually want to prove the critics wrong, they can start by passing the comprehensive Violence Against Women Act that's set to pass the Senate easily (again).

Why Congress Must Act on Gun Safety

While there's been plenty of talk in the last 48 hours about other issues in Washington, but that doesn't mean gun safety reform is "dead". Rather, expect more action this week as Senate hearings begin. Oh, and more legislation will soon be introduced as well.

Last week brought stories of Republican Senators crossing the aisle to at least rhetorically endorse some of the president’s top goals on gun control. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is reportedly working with Democratic Senators on legislation to ban the trafficking of illegal guns. He’s also working “to find an amenable background-check proposal,” according to staff.

It is not so surprising that Kirk has joined the push for new gun laws after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. He has supported a ban on so-called assault weapons in the past and has expressed support for new proposals for one. But there are signs more conservative Republicans are ready to join the push for background checks, which is the central legislative goal of gun control advocates in the current debate. On Friday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said he’s working with Democrats on a background check plan. (Coburn did not respond to a request for comment from TPM Monday.)

If more Republicans come out in support of expanded background checks, or at least the concept of them, it would bode well for that chunk of the president’s gun violence plan.

Perhaps some Republicans are taking a closer look at what Americans actually want. Yes, yet another poll shows broad support for gun safety!

As Washington begins the fight on gun control in earnest, a new poll from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health should bolster Democrats pushing for new firearms regulations.

According to the survey, released today, a majority of Americans support a wide array of policies being discussed in Congress: 89 percent support closing the so-called gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all firearms sale; 69 percent support banning the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons; while 68 percent support banning the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent favor prohibiting “high-risk individuals” from having guns, including those convicted of a serious crime as a juvenile or those convicted of violating a domestic-violence restraining order.

Just contrast many Nevada politicians' fear of the gun lobby with actual public opinion. And for that matter, contrast their fear of the gun lobby with sound public policy. One just can't ignore either any more... Unless one is a politician who's more concerned about one's NRA rating than the safety of the American people.

Speaking of safety, ProgressNow Nevada Executive Director Brian Fadie saw this firsthand when he did a shooting trip with Nevada Assembly Member Michelle Fiore (R-Las Vegas). Fiore wanted to highlight how "safe" semi-automatic assault rifle shooting can be. Yet strangely enough, that exercise more likely proved the opposite.

This emphasis on safety during the class was a point of pride with Fiore and I think one of the two main reasons she wanted me to go through it (the other being to fire a gun). But for all of the practice and repetition of safety procedures I cannot say I came away feeling safer around guns or better about our gun laws.

In the final session of the class, after more than 18 hours of learning about our handguns and practicing safety procedures, two separate people forgot their safety training and their gun fired a bullet when it was not supposed to. They were pointing down range at the time so no one was hurt, but that’s not the point. This was supposed to be the time during class when people would have the most practice safely handling a gun and they still fired bullets unintentionally.

What scared me even more was an incident in which I forgot the safety procedures myself. During one of the drills I was having a problem removing the magazine from the gun. Suddenly everyone around me started giving advice, even reaching over and handling my gun themselves, and it became a hectic situation. In the commotion I forgot to unload my gun at the end of the drill. Luckily, one of the instructors saw my mistake, came over, and unloaded my gun. [...]

How many guns are purchased where the owner never goes through any training? How many guns are purchased where the owner does go through a training course at the time, but then thinks they’re set for life and never return?

After the training I spoke with one of the directors of Front Sight and told him my concerns. He actually agreed and responded “You know how there is drivers ed? We think there should be gun ed.”

At Brian's training day at the range, the instructor noted "The 50% Rule". That states that shooters are only 50% as effective in real world street fights as they are in controlled shootings at designated sites. Because of the incredibly fast-paced nature of a real world shootout and the rush of adrenaline coming from the "fight or flight" mentality of a real gun fight, a shooter typically doesn't remember what one learned during training. And that assumes that the shooter is actually trained. In Nevada, along with other states, gun buyers are not required to attend trainings.

This is why the gun lobby's preferred solution of more guns really won't work. Can untrained civilians handling assault weapons actually prevent tragedies? Or will they just lead to more unnecessary accidents?

And again, what kind of democratic society can properly function in an environment where every public setting is an armed battlefield? How can free trade work in that environment? How can a free exchange of ideas work in that kind of environment? Think about that.

And think about what happens in the real world when these military grade assault weapons and heavy ammunition are so readily accessible. This is why Congress must act on gun safety.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Doomed? Or Destiny?

That didn't take long. Just hours after the revelation of the "Gang of 8" Senate immigration deal and hours before President Obama returns to Nevada to reveal his own blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), a familiar voice is now chiming in. Guess who's been "evolving" on immigration.

“It is encouraging to see President Obama, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans commit to passing reforms that will create an orderly immigration process for those wishing to take part in the American Dream. For far too long, many in Washington have focused on the twenty percent where Democrats and Republicans disagree. We are making progress towards a proposal that focuses on the 80 percent where both sides of the aisle can come to an agreement.

“Since November, I have had several conversations with Senator Rubio, as well as discussions with Senator Graham, Senator Flake and Representative Raúl Labrador about my views on comprehensive immigration reform. This bipartisan group of Senators has provided a reasonable starting point for Republicans and Democrats to work together. I support many of the principles included in this plan, and look forward to reviewing specific details in the weeks and months ahead. As the President prepares to release his own ideas for immigration reform, it is my hope that he looks to this bipartisan proposal as a blueprint for his plans moving forward."

What a difference a statewide campaign makes. Remember when Senator Dean Heller (R-46%) toed the "tea party" line in opposing CIR? This sounds like someone who had to do some "soul searching" after winning his election by fewer than 13,000 votes and with much less than 50%.

All of a sudden, Capitol Hill is buzzing with confidence that a deal will be made. And with Dean Heller now firmly on board, immigration reformers may finally be on the cusp of securing the 60+ votes needed for CIR to clear the Senate. And though immigrant rights activists are still concerned about what will happen in the "sausage making process" of crafting the specific language of this bill, many are feeling increasingly optimistic about 2013 becoming the year of immigration reform.

Advocates describe the senators’ framework as the biggest bipartisan breakthrough publicly released since 2007, when President George Bush’s immigration overhaul died in Congress. Like Bush’s plan, the senators’ supports steps to legalization that are “contingent upon securing our borders” and enforcing visa overstays, which must be accomplished before any undocumented immigrant receives a green card. Advocates say that’s the most meaningful part of the plan but also the one that raises the most questions.

Their concern is that the conditions for gaining citizenship could wind up being so stringent that undocumented immigrants could remain in legal limbo for the indeterminate future. “Is this citizenship in name only?If so, there is going to be some pretty dramatic backlash,” says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center.

The proposal, for example, calls for border security to “apprehend every unauthorized entrant,” which has raised some eyebrows. “If that’s going to be the standard, that’s essentially an unrealistic, impossible standard to meet,” says [Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association].

Advocates are hopeful, however, that the senators’ intent is to make the plan workable and not create an endless, open-ended timeframe for legalization. Bush’s 2007 plan, for instance, set up similar triggers for gaining citizenship. According to Giovagnoli, experts estimated at the time that clearing out the backlog of visas would take about eight years. And this new blueprint, on its face, suggests that legislators might be willing to push a bill that’s more generous than the 2007 plan.

There was some concern this morning about the "trigger" for permanent legal status, but so far it looks like Senate Democrats are determined to ensure no "second class citizen" status results from this legislation.

So are we finally approaching a breakthrough on CIR? Not so fast, says Salon's Alex Pareene. He still thinks House Republicans will likely kill the bill. Remember them?

The problem comprehensive immigration reform ran into last time is that Republicans don’t want it. The business community wants it, obviously, but Republicans forced to choose between donors and their right-wing white constituents are generally more terrified of pissing off their constituents. Right-wing nativism has declined a bit since its recent height in 2010, but it’s still arguably worse than it was in 2006, when mass conservative revolt killed the last deal.

As all of America’s recent legislative fights have shown, House Republicans are protected from national anti-conservative trends by very safe and conservative districts. They are more vulnerable to getting primaried than they are to losing to moderates or Democrats in a general election. A majority of Americans may now support a path to citizenship,but a majority of Americans also support hiking taxes on the rich, and the GOP nearly shut down the government rather than agree to that. [...]

[... T]he entire deal rests on Speaker John Boehner again bringing a major, controversial bill to the floor without a majority of Republican support, and relying on Democratic votes for its passage. I’m not sure he can do that again without ending his career. I imagine he’d be perfectly fine with killing whatever the Senate passes and allowing his caucus to pass some sort of “flying border drones and giant fences only” version of “immigration reform” instead.

Personally, I'm not so pessimistic. I wouldn't underestimate either the power of public opinion or Republicans' instinct for political survival. But then again, the latter presents a real pickle for Republican Members of Congress. Do they back CIR and risk "tea party" backlash? Or do they kill CIR and risk further alienating minority communities?

This is where Joe Heck and Mark Amodei step in. Will they back CIR? That will ultimately determine both the future of this legislation... And the future of the Republican Party.

Is He Really "Tired of the Drama"?

Well, that didn't last too long. Earlier this morning, Desert Beacon caught this lovely nugget in the Elko Daily Free Press. Supposedly, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Born Again "TEA" Lover) is "tired of the drama" on Capitol Hill.

The Republican Party is making some changes, both internally and externally, following the re-election of President Barack Obama, according to Nevada GOP leaders at the Elko County Lincoln Day Dinner Friday night.

“I am tired of the drama,” U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei told an audience in the Red Lion Inn & Casino. “I’m full up on drama. Drama doesn’t get anything done.”

But notice what he then said at the Elko Lincoln Day Dinner. So how "tired of the drama" is Mark Amodei? Oh, he's just tired enough that he wants to bring on the drama (and the economic pain) of a federal government shutdown!

“Come the end of March, if you’re not talking to us about the debt, if you’re not talking about the continuing resolution, if you haven’t done the (budget) in the first time in over three years, then guess what? No more debt limit increase,” he said, emphatically. “If you don’t talk to us about all that ... and we don’t start on the job of balancing the federal budget ... we’ll shut her down.”

Jeez, where do we start? Doesn't Mark Amodei know that under Article I of the Constitution that he and his G-O-TEA supposedly love so much, budgets are supposed to originate in the House. And under the 2011 debt ceiling deal, the federal budget was already pre-set for Fiscal Years 2012 & 2013. So who's really to blame for "budget malfeasance"?

And then, there's Amodei's "shutdown solution". If a Congressional stalemate forces a federal government shutdown, there are real economic consequences. With a non-functioning federal government, 800,000 federal workers are furloughed, national parks are closed, small business loans & tax refunds are halted, many mortgages are thrown into limbo, and many more unsavory events are unleashed. That means our burgeoning economic recovery is likely killed. And on top of that, the federal budget deficit is further increased due to additional borrowing costs. So much for those "tea party budget hawks" and their "fiscal solutions" that Mark Amodei so admires!

Even if we just fall off "The Fiscal Cliff" next month instead of experiencing a government shutdown, that will likely cause unnecessary economic pain.

More seriously, the threat of more austerity also remains. Republicans shifted the deadline on the debt ceiling principally to obtain leverage over Mr Obama through the sequester—automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. If it kicks in as scheduled in March, Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy, reckons it would knock 0.7 percentage points off growth this year. Though both parties would like to replace the sequester with more gradual, selective deficit cuts, they cannot agree on how to do so. Then, at the end of March, a resolution that finances roughly a third of the government expires, raising the possibility of a government shutdown.

“A big part of why the US economy is doing better than Europe’s is precisely because we did not switch to rapid austerity,” says Christina Romer, a former economic adviser to Mr Obama.

Right now, Republicans keep throwing political temper tantrums because they lost the bulk of the last 2 years' worth of fiscal fights. What they fail to recognize is that there are real world economic consequences for playing Russian Roulette with both the federal government and the nation's economy. Well, it's either that or they simply don't care if their manufactured "crises" cause unnecessary economic harm.

That's why Mark Amodei's cries over being "tired of the drama" ring quite hollow. If he's really "tired of the drama", he can actually let the government function the way it's supposed to. And that means not shutting down the government, threatening a debt default, or doing anything else that can cause real economic pain simply because he doesn't like the terms of the budget debate in Congress. Oh, and Dean Heller & Joe Heck should also take heed.

If Nevada's Republican Members of Congress are truly "tired of the drama", then why must they keep creating it? If they're really "tired of the drama" of their own manufactured fiscal fights, then they can prove so by stepping away from "The Cliff".

¿Trato Hecho?

What a difference an election makes. Just hours before President Obama comes to Southern Nevada to pitch his immigration reform proposal, a "gang of 8" US Senators jumped ahead of Obama in releasing their own "grand bargain" on immigration reform.

The Senate plan is more conservative than President Obama's proposal, which he plans to unveil Tuesday in a speech in Las Vegas. But its provisions for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants go further than measures that failed to advance in Congress in previous years — a reminder of how swiftly the politics of immigration have shifted since Latino voters' strong influence in the November election. [...]

The Senate proposal would allow most of those in the country illegally to obtain probationary legal status immediately by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. That would make them eligible to work and live in the U.S. They could earn a green card — permanent residency — after the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border has become secure, but might face a lengthy process before becoming citizens.

Obama is expected to push for a faster citizenship process that would not be conditional on border security standards being met first. The structure of the citizenship process will probably be among the most hotly debated parts of any immigration plan.

Less-controversial provisions would tighten requirements on employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skilled jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master's degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.

At first, this seems like a reasonable deal. However, there may be a nasty devil in the details that needs to be further examined. Under this deal, about 9 million undocumented immigrants won't even receive permanent legal status until the border has been "certified as secure". The federal government has spent $187 billion on border security since then-President Ronald Reagan signed the last immigration overhaul in 1986. And under Obama's first term, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported a record number of immigrants. How much more must we spend on border security until the border is "certified as secure"?

Perhaps this is a good faith effort at bipartisan compromise and deal-making. But what if it isn't? Are at least some Republicans hoping that this commission never officially declares a "secure" US/Mexico Border? I'm sure immigrant rights activists will be looking at this provision very closely to see how workable this really is. They will probably also be listening closely to President Obama's Las Vegas speech tomorrow to make sure he's committed to ensuring no permanent "second class citizenship" status is created.

Yet despite this yellow flag for the left, it still looks like the bigger danger for CIR (comprehensive immigration reform) lies with the right. As we've discussed before, Republicans' "tea party" base have been dead set against any kind of CIR. Will Senator Marco Rubio's (R-Florida) seal of approval change that? Or will they lump him in with Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) as a "sellout"?

And how will Senator Dean Heller (R-46%) & Rep. Joe Heck (R-"TEA" Curious) respond to this new development? Heller has already been "moderating" his language on immigration since he barely won reelection last fall (and lost the Latin@ vote 2-1). And Heck has been trying to strike a balance between his "TEA" fueled base and the political realities of NV-03. What will they say after Obama's unveiling of his plan, especially after this Senate proposal has been revealed?

There now looks to be a mad rush for CIR on Capitol Hill. Harry Reid's big goal may finally be coming to fruition, and one of President Obama's key campaign promises may finally come close to being fulfilled. But again, the devils may be truly be in the details. Just how workable is this new Senate deal? And can any Senate deal survive John Boehner's dysfunctional "tea party" plagued House?

The President will probably have all of this and more on his mind when he returns to Nevada tomorrow.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rethinking Gun Safety & "Freedom"

While we were busy enjoying a lazy, rainy Saturday, this happened in Washington. Yep, that's right. People showed up for a rally for gun safety.

About 1,000 people showed up in the nation's capital, and there were even more "satellite events" across the country. One of the groups that organized yesterday's event was One Million Moms for Gun Control. They've grown from one simple Facebook page to a nationwide movement.

And yes, they're now here in Southern Nevada as well. Yes, even here we're seeing growing support for gun safety reform.

Nationally, there's broad national support for what's essentially President Obama's gun safety plan. Yes, that even includes the Assault Weapon Ban. Yet even after so many polls have been showing so much support for gun safety reform, we're still supposed to believe it's "impossible". Why?

That's what Rachel Maddow asked on Thursday. Both of the US Senators who represent Newtown, Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) & Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), responded with hope for meaningful action.

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Yet even while most Americans demand comprehensive gun safety reform, the conversation in Washington has mostly revolved around how "impossible" this is. Why?

Even worse has been the conversation in Carson City. While Nevada legislators may be justifiably upset over the media circus that the Steven Brooks affair has become, they can't use that as an excuse for ignoring the real public policy questions behind it. Coolican wondered this morning if the Brooks affair will finally force the Nevada Legislature to better fund mental health care. I'm wondering the same, but I'm also wondering if this will force the Legislature to ask why it's easier in this state to access firearms than mental health care.

On one hand, I get it. I see the "reality" in Carson City and DC where politicians fear the wrath of the gun lobby. Harry Reid doesn't want to jeopardize the reelection of vulnerable US Senate Democrats in 2014, and he doesn't want to hurt his own likely reelection campaign in 2016. Meanwhile, a bunch of freshmen in the Nevada Legislature want to curry good favor with the NRA. Some Democrats don't want to be seen as "anti-gun", and most Republicans don't want to be seen as "betraying their base".

Yet while these politicians live their "reality", we live ours. Children are terrorized in their own schools. Shopping malls become armed battlefields. Inner cities have already felt like war zones for some time. Not even houses of worship seem safe.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again today. This level of armed violence is not conducive to a functioning democracy. Keep that in mind when gun lobbyists cry about "Obama's attacks on FREEDOM!!!" Are we really free when we don't feel free to share ideas at the college campus, buy a gift for the best friend's birthday party, send the kids to school, and/or even visit the Legislature? Think about it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why President Obama Will Return to Nevada

Next week, President Obama will be returning to Las Vegas. And he'll be talking immigration reform. Even as Congress seems to be talking up various immigration bills, President Obama will be making his case directly to the American people. And that effort will begin here in Southern Nevada.

President Barack Obama announced after a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus [CHC] on Friday that he will lay out some of his plans for immigration reform [CIR] on Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Members of the caucus who were present at the meeting said Obama assured them that he shares the group's basic beliefs about immigration reform, most notably that making a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- which some Republicans oppose -- is an absolute must as they push for legislation.

"The President was pleased to hear from CHC members and noted that they share the same vision, including that any legislation must include a path to earned citizenship," the administration in a statement. "The President further noted that there is no excuse for stalling or delay." [...]

The members of the caucus said in statements after the meeting that they laid out their principles and were told by the White House that the ideas align with the administration's planned policies.

"[W]e have made it crystal clear that any bill that does not include a pathway to earned citizenship will not have our support," Hinjosa said. "In the next few weeks and months, the CHC will remain committed to CIR and dedicate all our efforts to ensure legislation will make it to President Obama's desk."

The Associated Press reported that the White House will launch an effort on immigration next week,as will a bipartisan group of senators, likely the so-called "gang of eight" -- four Republicans, four Democrats -- who have already begun to work toward a deal.

The Hispanic Caucus wanted to ensure that President Obama is committed to CIR, and the President did just that. Already, top Congressional Republicans are changing their tune... Again. Even after inching towards supporting CIR earlier this month, they now seem to be reverting to form in advocating "second class citizenship" again. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) even called on Democrats to denounce unions (??!!) because they're advocating a pathway to real citizenship.

This is probably why President Obama is taking it to the streets. With some Republicans in Congress again playing political games with millions of families' lives, he wants the people to turn up the pressure on Members of Congress to do the right thing. And he actually already has the vast majority of the American people on his side.

A solid 77 percent of voters favor a full package of immigration reforms, including a roadmap to citizenship, according to a poll of 1,000 voters conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, and Hart Research Associates, a Democratic firm. The poll --sponsored by Service Employees International Union, America's Voice Education Fund, and National Immigration Forum -- confirms our strong belief that fixing the broken immigration system is not just a Latino priority, but also a high priority for the American people. A long-lasting program with accountability and a path to citizenship is what voters want; and it is not the third rail of politics that politicians have long feared. [...]

In every region of our nation -- north, east, west and the conservative South, where states such as Alabama and Georgia approved racial profiling, anti-immigrant laws -- voters say they are more likely to vote for their member of Congress if the member has voted for the complete reform plan that has been outlined. Republicans and Democrats want their representatives to vote for immigration reform and consider it a high priority, even with all other major issues Congress has on its plate.

The respondents also rejected the argument advanced by opponents that the immigration reform would allow immigrants to take jobs away from Americans. Instead, 60 percent of White voters, 61 percent of African American voters, and 71 percent of Latino voters agreed that America is stronger when immigrants get legal, pay taxes, and become part of society.

We already know Harry Reid considers CIR as one of his top priorities in the 113th Congress. It just remains to be seen if Dean Heller will come on board, and if there's any chance of Joe Heck or Mark Amodei coming on board. That's probably why President Obama is coming here first to tout immigration reform.

It already looks like Republicans are again fearing "tea party" blowback for backing CIR. But as we've discussed before, they likely have even more to lose by killing it in Congress. That's something Dean Heller and other Nevada Republicans must keep in mind as President Obama returns to Nevada next week. Do they really want to alienate Latinos and other minority communities to the point of becoming a "permanent minority party" here and nationally?

What Have They Learned?

Ever since the Steven Brooks story first broke, we've been trying to examine the important public policy questions behind the lurid scandal. Fortunately, we're finally seeing more of this discussion break into the "mainstream media". The RGJ's Ray Hagar pointed out what should be obvious yesterday.

Some lawmakers said Brooks' demeanor changed in the last few months. He got real loud and overbearing during an Assembly Democratic caucus meeting after the election, some Democrats said. He was suddenly an expert about stuff he knew little about. He was arrogant in the first place.

THIS THREAT about gun violence within the Nevada Legislature comes in the middle of an American hysteria over mass shootings.

We can't forget Newtown. Columbine, also unforgettable, seems like Pearl Harbor ancient history. We had another shooting incident last Tuesday at a Texas college, the very day this Brooks story was beginning to boil.

The Nevada Legislature has traditionally been very cheap about mental-health funding. It's not a top priority for a group that talks a good game about funding education but makes sure taxes remain low.

Now, concern over mental health and gun violence is at it's front door. One of their own, one of the Legislature's 63 esteemed elected officials, is knocking.

A new federal report on mental illness estimates that 45.6 million Americans suffered some sort of mental illness in 2011. Yet only 38.6% of those Americans received treatment. A full 25% of of those Americans suffering mental illness couldn't access treatment because they couldn't afford it.

We've lamented before how it's often easier to access firearms than mental health care. But my goodness, this is appalling. Nevada's mental health patients who've been involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals are rarely being added to the federal database that would restrict them from buying firearms.

“Individuals suffering from mental illness who pose a threat to themselves or others should be prohibited from purchasing a firearm,” [State Senator Ben] Kieckhefer [R-Reno] said in a statement. “Federal and state laws have been in effect for years to enforce this restriction. Unfortunately, here in Nevada, they are almost entirely unused.”

Kieckhefer, who formerly worked as a spokesman at the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said he is working with courts, law enforcement and mental health professions to draft a new law for the 2013 Legislative session which begins Feb. 4.

He said in an email that the intent of the law is to prevent not only those involuntarily committed to an institution from buying gun, but also those who, in the opinion of a psychiatrist, pose a danger to themselves or others.

"Many of these people are held for more than a week, treated and released before they ever get to their scheduled hearing," he said. "They were never formally committed by the judge, but have basically the same situation."

In 2011, just 178 of the 1,619 individuals psychiatrists filed petitions with the court to commit into the state's public mental hospital in Las Vegas were added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That system, known as NICS, is used in firearm sales to check whether someone is allowed to purchase a weapon.

And none of the petitions for the Dini-Townsend Hospital in Reno made it onto the federal database in Fiscal Year 2012. What happened?

Even current gun safety laws are not being fully enforced. Add to that the overall light load of gun safety standards, along with the gun lobby's resistance to reform.

Something has to change. Nevada legislators must realize this.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Time to Act.

Just over a week ago, President Obama revealed his comprehensive gun safety plan. Today, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) unveiled her own take on the cornerstone of the President's gun safety agenda. Feinstein shepherded the original Assault Weapons Ban through Congress in 1994, and she's ready to do it again in 2013. But this time, she insists this bill will be even more effective in curbing the dangerous level of access to both military grade weapons and high-capacity magazines.

So what's in it? Let's start here.

“No weapon is taken from anyone,” Sen. Feinstein said on Thursday. “The purpose is to dry up the supply of these weapons over time.”

The bill expands the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban that Feinstein approved but Congress declined to renew in 2004, after lawmakers argued that, as it was written, the ban had many loopholes.

The new legislation would ban the sale, manufacture, importation, and transfer of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines as well as ban high-capacity ammunition the holds more than 10 rounds.

It also requires anyone who already owns an assault rifle to use a secure storage and safety device and bans them from selling high-capacity clips. Weapons purchased before the law’s enactment would be grandfathered in, a measure drawn to avoid alienating gun owners.

“Getting this bill signed into law will be an uphill battle, and I recognize that, but it’s a battle worth having,” Feinstein said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

So is this more effective than the past version? Wonkblog's Brad Plumer has more details. Basically, this version lists more military grade weapons, updates the definition of "assault weapons" (so that gun manufacturers can't sidestep this bill if enacted into law), and sets in place programs (like voluntary buybacks and strict ownership guidelines for current weapons in circulation) to gradually reduce the circulation of these military grade assault weapons. All in all, Feinstein's new bill looks much stronger and less prone to loophole poking than the 1994 bill.

What's likely the bigger challenge is getting this bill passed. Already, the gun lobby is engaging in hysterical fearmongering to build opposition to any kind of gun safety reform. And Nevada's own Harry Reid has been cagey on the subject. (He recently said he'll allow Senate floor votes on Obama's proposals, but he hasn't declared yet what he will personally support.)

We know gun safety reform has broad public support. Yes, even the Assault Weapons Ban has the support of 58% of Americans. This is why Senator Feinstein and progressive grassroots groups like Courage Campaign demand action. So now, it's time for Senator Reid to act.


Yesterday, we talked about possible changes to the filibuster in the US Senate. Today, it looks very dead. Why? Harry Reid cut a deal with Mitch McConnell.

Here's how Senator Reid explained his latest move.

A second explanation for Reid’s early enthusiasm for reform might be that Reid needed to convince McConnell to strike a deal and that the only way to do that was to scare him a bit. “Whenever you change the rules here,” Reid said, “you have to show the other side you can change them with 51 votes.” It’s the fear of the partisan reforms, in other words, that leads to bipartisan reforms.

Reid still wants to keep Republicans a little scared. He recalled that earlier in the 112th session of Congress, Senate Republicans began filing motions to suspend the rules after their filibusters were broken. “They couldn’t win these votes,” Reid said. ”It just ate up time. I put up with it for awhile and then said no more. I went to the floor, and I said that’s dilatory. The chair said no, it isn’t. I overruled the chair, and now you can’t do that because I set a precedent. I’m capable of doing more of that.”

I asked Reid whether he really thought the filibuster could survive in a Senate where, in truth, the majority leader, alongside 49 other senators and the vice president, could change any rule they wanted.

“The only way we’ll get rid of the filibuster is if it continues to be abused,” he said. “Hopefully, what we’ll do here will stop some of the abuse, but what will happenif the minority continues to abuse the rules is we won’t get rid of the filibuster, but we’ll go to something like what [Sen. Tom] Harkin has pushed, where one vote is at 57, and then another vote is at 55.”

He's always been a strong believer in Senate process, despite the whining & complaining of certain media pundits. Senate process has always been about comity, and about reaching consensus, rather than muscling together whatever majority is necessary to pass a bill (as the House typically works). Yet while Harry Reid has been able to maneuver his way to quite a few legislative victories, there's still far more to do (including legislation that's been killed by Senate filibusters in the past). And some progressives are notably irritated by Reid's reluctance to truly shake up the Senate.

“Reid said he wants to make it easier to move on bills,” the [pro-reform Senate Democratic] aide told TPM. “This doesn’t do that. He still has to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. This is a negligible difference to how the Senate operates today. I don’t see how they can make that argument.”

Outside proponents of reform lamented the Reid-McConnell deal.

“Unfortunately, the incremental ‘reforms” in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change,” said Fix The Senate Now, a coalition of groups pushing filibuster reform. The coalition said Democrats have “missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction.”

So what's been agreed to? Here's the gist of it.

The new rules would permit a Senate majority to bypass the filibuster on a motion to proceed to debate with the condition that either a group of senators on each side of the aisle agrees, or the minority is guaranteed the chance to offer amendments.

The new rules limit debate time for sub-cabinet and district court nominations and reduces the number of required hours between cloture and final confirmation from 30 to two. It also lowers the number of cloture motions required to go to conference with the House.

Believe it or not, this is a big deal. Senate rules haven't been changed significantly since 1917. And the last time the filibuster was even tweaked was in 1964, when the cloture threshold was lowered from 67 votes to 60 in order to ease the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Steve Benen is another progressive who's frustrated with the filibuster as is, but he thinks this negotiated package of changes is at least a good first step towards stronger reform that can fix the Senate. It's maddening to think of all the unfilled executive branch positions, all the unfilled judge's seats, and all the stalled legislation over the years. And while Reid's deal with McConnell will curb the more extreme abuses of the filibuster, it still leaves plenty of room for more of the above to happen.

Again, Harry Reid very much believes in the institution of the United States Senate. Despite the balking of some media pundits, he's given plenty of deference to Senate tradition. That's actually why some on the left are angry today. We'll just have to see if this actually helps the Senate function... And if/when the opportunity rises for stronger reform.

Mo' Fiscal, Mo' Problems

Last time we checked in on the manufactured "debt ceiling crisis", Republicans looked set to cave. Yesterday, they finally did. And believe it or not, Senator Dean Heller (R-46) is taking credit for the latest fiscal deal!

The House voted Wednesday to approve a three-month suspension of the congressionally set limit to the president’s borrowing authority, along with a direction to lawmakers to pass a 2014 budget by the regular, procedural order or risk losing their pay.

That caveat has come to be known in Washington as “No Budget, No Pay.” It is the brainchild of Heller, who first introduced the concept in July 2011 as a bill directed at forcing the Senate to pass budgets by regular order starting in 2013.

Heller’s been stumping for legislation ever since, advocating for its adoption before the Senate Government Affairs Committee with the help of the nonpartisan group No Labels.

Never mind that the 27th Amendment has rendered this moot. It states that any changes in Congressional salary can't take effect until the next Congress has been seated. So really, Dean Heller can take pride in John Boehner picking up his "No Budget, No Pay" plan as a publicity stunt. But really, all it did was add a little more grease to the tracks for the latest Republican fiscal cave.

Yet even with this resolved, there's even more fiscal drama coming. Remember the "Fiscal Cliff"? It's back. No really, we're now looking forward to this.

One long shot is for Republicans and Democrats to draw the contours of a tax and spending agreement in the budget process — to essentially let negotiations over a joint House-Senate budget become a proxy for negotiations over the sequester. If in the early days of the sequester, the House and Senate manage to paper over major differences between their budgets, and agree to fast-track tax reforms and safety net spending cuts through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, it would buy them the fiscal room they need to turn off the sequester forever.

Like I said — longshot.

Alternatively, this can all play out in the public sphere: Defense contractors, Medicare providers and others will start screaming at Republicans and Democrats to reach a less onerous budget agreement. President Obama will use his bully pulpit to pin blame for the sequester and its consequences on Republicans. Eventually, pressure would grow on them —and Democrats — to cut a deal.

In the background of all this haggling is the specter of a government shutdown. A month after the sequester takes effect, funding for the federal government will run out. If the House and Senate can’t reach an agreement on appropriations, government agencies will cease operations. And nothing will draw the public’s attention to Congress’ incompetence, and the impact of the sequester than a government shutdown.

I know what's coming next. Some Republicans will whine some more about "Obama's BIG spending"! Never mind that government expenditures have actually declined since President Obama took office. Of course, this isn't the actual reason for continued G-O-TEA budget games. That's what Greg Sargent explained yesterday.

But all this means is that Republicans are simply trading one charade for another one. GOP leaders mollified House conservatives angry about today’s vote by vowing to stick to a souped up version of the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint, one that will make deficits disappear in a mere 10 years, with no new revenues. This is a fantasy. Jonathan Chait does some back of the envelope calculations and estimates it could mean Republicans “will have to cut domestic discretionary programs and spending for the poor by about half.” As Chait concludes: “Boehner has committed now to voting on something that would require even more draconian cuts to social spending than the Ryan budget.” Needless to say, no deal will be possible if the GOP sticks to anything close to this blueprint.

This isn’t to say the road ahead for Democrats is smooth. The threats of the sequester and a government shutdown are serious, and the possibility that Dems will give up significantly more in spending cuts than liberals would like is very real. Senate Dems will now have to pass their own budget. That could be tricky, but it also may be an occasion to formally restate the Dem insistence that we must have more in revenues via closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy. Republicans appear confident that this will force Dems to vote for a politically difficult “tax hike,” but as the last election showed, the public prefers such tax hikes to the types of cuts House Republicans will now find themselves forced to propose.

We’re basically back where we started, which is that Republicans are demanding deficit reduction only through massive spending cuts while simultaneously refusing to permit any more in revenues from the rich. Until Republicans let go of this political hokum, the fundamental underlying argument will remain unresolved. This was true before the debt limit fantasy took flight, and it will continue, now that this fantasy crashed and burned.

This is the real reason why John Boehner swiped Dean Heller's great unconstitutional gimmick. He needed a way for House Republicans to quietly cave on the debt ceiling so they can (re)start grandstanding on the "Fiscal Cliff"/sequester. And they want to do so in order to try to force Democrats into accepting brutal cuts to the social safety net.

Unfortunately for them, Senate Democrats refuse to bite into that rotten apple. Instead, they plan to call Republicans' bluff with their own budget proposal.
As we've discussed before, Republicans really shouldn't mess with Harry Reid.

We may have to endure a few more weeks of these games of fiscal charade, but Republicans know they can't keep fighting the inevitable for too much longer. It's just too bad for the country that we must endure a few more weeks of fiscal insanity. Ah, mo' fiscal, mo' problems (but hopefully not for too much longer).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

(What About) The Real Issues Behind the Steven Brooks Scandal?

Surprise, surprise... Or not.

As expected, tensions rose in Carson City as scandal plagued Assembly Member Steven Brooks (D-North Las Vegas) returned to the Legislature. Interestingly, it didn't last long. Nonetheless, he made a grand exit!

All of a sudden, this serious case of a potentially dangerous situation erupting in the Nevada Legislature seems to be turning into Nevada Government's own sordid "reality TV" affair. No really, this happened.

Brooks, carrying a cane, wearing dark sunglasses and covering his head with a beige hood, was whisked by police into the Legislative Building and ushered into a closed conference room on the first floor of the building. As legislative staff attempted to divert reporters, Brooks was escorted out of the building after his meeting with police.

Brooks uttered a muffled "No comment," before flashing the peace sign to pursuing reporters.

At least he and Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick (D-North Las Vegas) were not in the same room today. He ultimately declined to participate in the Assembly Ways & Means hearing that he had originally planned to attend. Instead, he found another way to snub Kirkpatrick.

In another twist to the emerging story, the Clark County Constable's Office sent a deputy with Brooks to provide him personal protection while in Carson City. Constable John Bonaventura has a political rivalry with Kirkpatrick, who is sponsoring legislation to change how the constable's office governed. Bonaventura has been a controversial figure who proposed a reality television show based on his office.

Brooks' lawyer Mitchell Posin confirmed the constable's office offered Brooks personal protection.

"I haven't heard of it either, but this is apparently something they do," Posin said. "It was offered."

Brooks had earlier sought protection from legislative police, worried that a fugitive gang member was after him. Posin said the constable was there to protect him from both gang members and Kirkpatrick.

"Very likely both," Posin said when asked from whom Brooks needed protection.

Now this is really starting to resemble a circus... Albeit a fairly scary circus. I'll become even more frightened if Bravo, TLC, and/or VH1 camera crews are soon seen in Carson City. No wonder why some legislators have become increasingly irritated by the media fixation on the Steven Brooks scandal.

So what are we to do? And what should the "mainstream media" do? There's a reason why I've been trying to focus more on the real public policy problems revealed in this scandal.

But the extent of that anger wasn’t clear until Saturday afternoon, when Atkinson answered his phone and received a warning from “a person close to Brooks” that the assemblyman was looking to hurt Kirkpatrick.

The call so alarmed Atkinson that he called Kirkpatrick, who immediately dialed the police.

According to the police report, Kirkpatrick said Atkinson sent her a text message indicating that "no one else should feel safe around Brooks" and that if Brooks were to show up to the first legislative session, he "would find a way to keep him out of the building." [...]

Brooks’ wife, Ada Brooks, told police the handgun belonged to “one of Steven’s friends who owned a security company.”

Ada Brooks also said that during the past few months, her husband's mental health “has been getting worse and she is worried about him.” Kirkpatrick told police Brooks had been released from Seven Hills Behavioral Center the night before.

As I've been saying here since yesterday, this should make both our legislators and our members of Congress think more about the state of mental health care and the many cracks in current gun laws. (Desert Beacon reported earlier today on some G-O-TEA legislators' latest proposal to crack Nevada's already flimsy gun laws even more.) Again, there are real public policy issues that should come to the forefront now.

But will they? Or will it all be overshadowed by bizarre theatrics and media speculation over personal rivalries?