Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Oral Arguments Open in Supreme Court Challenge to Texas Law

On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the most significant reproductive rights case to reach the Supreme Court in a generation. The outcome of the case will, to put it plainly, determine whether a woman’s constitutional right to access safe and legal abortion is merely theoretical, or means anything in the real world.

At issue is a controversial Texas law enacted in 2013 that critics say has diminished abortion access throughout the state. The law mirrors a national trend; since 2011, state legislators have passed an onslaught of abortion restrictions that have made it increasingly difficult for women to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Attorneys representing Texas abortion providers are challenging two main provisions of the Texas law, known as HB2—requirements that every abortion provider obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital, and that all abortion clinics meet ambulatory surgical center building standards.

The GOP state legislature argues that the law’s mandates are there to protect women’s health. But critics say the real objective of HB2 is to make accessing abortion services more difficult, something that has certainly turned out to be the case.

Across the state, facilities have been forced to shut down, unable to afford the costs of complying with the new regulations. Though Texas has 5.4 million women of childbearing age living within its borders, the number of facilities that provide abortion services has dropped by more than half, from 40 to 19, in less than three years. If the Supreme Court upholds HB2, that number is expected to drop even further—to ten clinics or fewer.

The salutatory health claims made by the law’s authors have not been substantiated by evidence. Abortion is an unusually safe medical procedure—researchers have found that complications following abortions in the first trimester are less frequent than after tonsillectomies or wisdom tooth extractions, among other procedures. (More than 90 percent of abortions occur during the first trimester.) The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have also said that there is “simply no medical basis to impose a local admitting privilege on abortion providers.” Moreover, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a reproductive health research organization housed at the University of Texas at Austin, found no evidence to suggest that surgical abortion complications following first-trimester abortions are less frequent in facilities that meet ambulatory surgical center building standards.

Since HB2’s enactment, Texas women face longer waiting periods to access abortion care. There is also evidence to suggest that more women are attempting to self-induce their own abortions. In November, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project published a study which estimated that between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women ages 18 to 49 have attempted in their lifetimes to end their pregnancies without medical help. The researchers say they expect those numbers to rise further if Texas continues to erect barriers to safe and legal abortion.

Dr. Willie Parker, a medical doctor and abortion provider in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, told the Associated Press that if Texas’s law stands, “it won’t mean fewer unintended pregnancies. It won’t mean fewer fatally flawed pregnancies. It will mean women will be left without a safe and legal means of ending pregnancy.”

The Supreme Court case has galvanized advocates around the country. Over a dozen buses from cities across the country, including Atlanta, Cleveland, and New York City—among others, will be transporting reproductive rights supporters to the nation’s capital to unite around the banner of #StopTheSham. Upwards of 1,000 reproductive rights activists are expected to rally outside the Supreme Court for safe and legal abortion access, from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. on Wednesday. At the rally, women will be publicly sharing their own abortion stories, abortion providers will give speeches about their work, and members of Congress, local elected officials, faith leaders, and civil-rights activists will also be making public remarks.

The stakes of today’s case couldn’t be higher, and the Court’s decision will have reverberations for women across America—even in blue states and liberal cities.

Is Warren the Inevitable Democratic VP Candidate?

Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have good reason to put Senator Elizabeth Warren on the ticket—whoever wins the presidential nomination.

If Sanders wins his underdog campaign, he will have denied the nomination to the most prominent and admired woman in American politics. He will be under intense pressure to name a woman as his running mate.

What about ideological ticket-balancing? Turning to a centrist for vice president would make no sense—it would deny who Sanders is and his entire reason for running. There are other plausible women, but naming Warren would redouble the campaign’s grassroots energy. You want a progressive ticket? Sanders could double down.

And if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she will desperately need someone to win the excitement of the Sanders base. How about Sanders himself? Probably not. But Warren is a more convincing version of Sanders than Sanders.

Two women on the ticket? Well, for most of our history, presidential tickets have been two men.

Think of the mobilizing potential. Doubtless, Hillary will.

McConnell’s Misstep -- and Obama’s Backbone

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a big mistake when he declared that Republicans would not confirm any Supreme Court nominee appointed by President Obama in this election year. For starters, it makes Republican senators, several of whom are defending closely contested seats in purple states, look purely obstructionist and opportunist. The same goes for the GOP presidential candidates who are treating the question of who will succeed conservative Justice Antonin Scalia as nothing but political.

More importantly, Republicans are missing an opportunity to lock in a center-right justice before a Democrat gets elected president. If McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley were shrewd, they would play to Obama’s vanity and signal that they could live with a moderate. That way the seat, instead of going to a liberal who would deliver progressives a long-awaited 5-4 liberal high court majority, would go to another Anthony Kennedy-style moderate conservative. That would create an alignment of three conservatives, four liberals, and two swing votes.

Would Obama have the nerve to resist this? As companion pieces in the Prospect by Peter Dreier and Margo Schlanger suggest, the court’s current 4-4 deadlock actually helps liberals, because so many lower court rulings cut in a more liberal direction. They would have been struck down by a 5-4 majority had Scalia lived through the end of the current Court term in June. But now the lower court rulings, which tackle issues ranging from affirmative action to union representation and abortion rights, will stand.

That leaves Obama with the upper hand, if he will use it. He should be in no rush to appoint a centrist. Any nominee embraced by McConnell and his GOP allies would almost certainly disappoint progressives. Obama would do better to appoint a highly-qualified progressive, split the GOP Senate caucus, and dare Republicans to be obstructionist.

House Speaker Shows Interest in Congressional Black Caucus Initiative to Fight Rural Poverty

After losing the White House in 2012, the Republican Party set out to do some “soul searching” to figure out how to make inroads with African-American voters who traditionally support Democrats. The following year, the Republican National Committee released a comprehensive “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, which included a detailed plan on how to reach blacks and other minority voters.

House Republicans are now taking a page out of that playbook to try to broaden the appeal of the GOP—and one of their most recent efforts involves black Democratic lawmakers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled his interest in studying the “10-20-30” plan, an anti-poverty initiative that Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina and the Congressional Black Caucus have championed for years.

The 10-20-30 initiative is a now expired provision of the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which Clyburn originally proposed. The provision allocated 10 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $2.5 billion rural development budget in “persistent poverty counties”—where at least 20 percent of the population has been living below the poverty line for 30 years or more.

The ARRA initiative funded more than 4,000 projects in persistent poverty counties, including 108 water and environmental projects. Clyburn and the CBC want to restore the program and expand it to all federal agencies. According to Clyburn, the 10-20-30 plan does not add to the federal deficit—which appeals to Republican lawmakers—because it “allocates resources from funds already authorized or appropriated.”

Reviving this program could attract support from voters in both major parties.

The plan might also help repair the GOP’s tattered image in communities of color. According to a 2015 Pubic Policy Polling poll, support for Republicans among African Americans remains dismal.

Speaker Ryan’s interest in the anti-poverty initiative is a stark contrast to the racially coded comments he made in 2014, when he blamed poverty in urban minority communities on lazy men.

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” he said on a conservative radio show and “and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Ryan’s evolving views on poverty may be linked to the fact that Republican congressional districts stand to gain from the 10-20-30 plan. According to Representative Clyburn, there are 492 counties in “persistent poverty” that would qualify for the funds under a new program: Republican lawmakers currently represent 372 of those counties or about 76 percent of them.

Why We Need a Renewed National Discussion on School Integration

Yesterday the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), hosted a panel discussion on school and housing segregation. Featuring Kimberly Goyette, a sociologist at Temple University, Amy Ellen Schwartz, an economist at NYU, Amy Stuart Wells, a sociologist at Columbia, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former New York Times education columnist—the four speakers explored how best to provide children and families with opportunity.

The panel came on the heels of a few recent school integration developments. First, the Obama administration just released its 2017 budget, calling for $120 million to fund voluntary socioeconomic integration of schools. (Though largely symbolic, national advocates were enthusiastic, as it would more than double current levels of federal funding.) Second, the Century Foundation just released two new reports showing that the number of school districts and charter schools embracing voluntary integration has more than doubled in the past decade. (It’s still a small percentage, though.) And lastly, historian Matthew Delmont has just written a provocative book, Why Busing Failed, which challenges mainstream assumptions about “forced busing” as a tool for desegregation.

Yet despite increased attention, it’s evident that the school integration conversation suffers from a few problems. In many respects, people are talking past one another, disagree on basic terms and definitions, and have strongly different ideas about what the problems even are, let alone what the optimal policy solutions should be.

Are integrated schools something everyone should have, or should we just design “diverse schools” for parents and families who actively seek that? Are we pushing for integration because there’s a particular moral imperative, or has research demonstrated it improves student academic achievement? Are schools with high concentrations of racial minorities considered segregated if families choose to send their children to them? How should we be thinking about the rise of largely white charter schools? Do we talk about racism? Socioeconomic status? The Constitution?

On the panel, Richard Rothstein argued that the country has a long way to go in terms of fulfilling its constitutional obligation to desegregate schools—and that the first step must involve launching a national education campaign so that the public, and progressives in particular, can better understand their history. He called de facto segregation “a national myth”—one that allows Americans to sleep easy in the face of illegal discrimination.

“We have to get serious about desegregating the country, and I don’t just mean desegregating low-income families,” he said. “I mean lower-middle class areas too. We need a fundamental rethinking about our priorities.” Rothstein walked through the history of government-sponsored housing segregation, specifically looking at Ferguson, Missouri, which he’s also written about at length for The American Prospect.

Others were less impressed with his vision. Amy Ellen Schwartz quickly dismissed Rothstein’s ideas, and went on to list various strategies that advocates can employ right now to meet kids where they are. She touted school choice and expanding summer youth employment programs, and in general “strengthening all neighborhoods.” She didn’t spend much time exploring how past efforts at revitalizing poor black communities have worked out, however.

Amy Stuart Wells, a co-author of one of the Century Foundation’s recent reports, noted that one reason to be optimistic is that millennials have more racially tolerant attitudes. Several audience members I spoke with following the event expressed similar hopes. But according to the data, this doesn’t really seem to be true.

And even if it were true, even if surveys did show that millennials have less racist attitudes than previous generations, it’s likely that school segregation would still persist. Parents rely on racial composition as a signaling tool—those schools with higher concentrations of racial minorities tend to have fewer resources and suffer from more difficult challenges, like concentrated poverty. If parents want to provide their kid with the most opportunity, as most parents do, then even a white family fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement would be unlikely to send their child to a school in the ghetto, if they can avoid it. This is why, as Kimberly Goyette suggested, it’s hard to have integrated schools without integrated neighborhoods.

It’s a great thing to see a renewed national discussion around school integration. In a recent interview, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitted he would “give himself a low grade” on school desegregation, and said the country “can and should do more” on that front. Duncan’s successor, John King, has also signaled that he plans to prioritize racial and economic integration more on the federal level. “Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” King said in a speech last month.

It’ll be interesting to see where this all leads. A few weeks ago I reported on a groundbreaking lawsuit in Minnesota—where lawyers are suing the state for allowing segregated schools to proliferate in the Twin Cities. It’s a controversial case, and one that specifically threatens the existence of publicly funded charter schools that cater to high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. It has divided the civil rights community, and sparked debates about segregated schooling in the 21st century, particularly within the era of school choice.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our neighborhoods and schools are still deeply segregated; we rarely stop to talk about them, save for widely publicized crises, like the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray or the water scandal in Flint, Michigan. So bring on the debates, the reports, the panels, and the national discussion. These are all long, long overdue.  

Justice Department Fails to Criminally Prosecute a Big Bank -- Again

(Photo: Nick Ansell/AP)
 

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it had reached a $470 million settlement with mega-bank HSBC related to mortgage lending and foreclosure fraud that led to the economic collapse of 2008.

“This settlement illustrates the department’s continuing commitment to ensure responsible mortgage servicing,” Benjamin Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “The agreement is part of our ongoing effort to address root causes of the financial crisis.”

This isn’t the bank’s first run-in with the Feds. In 2013, HSBC reached a $250 million deal with the Federal Reserve to settle complaints of wrongful foreclosures. That year, it also paid out $550 million to the Federal Housing Finance Agency over the bank’s sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It also agreed to pay the U.S. government $1.9 billion related to charges that the bank laundered money for Latin American drug cartels. The list goes on.

News of another settlement with a big bank is not surprising. The Justice Department’s modus operandi in dealing with the banks that were behind the most egregious misconduct on Wall Street before the market crash has been to reach out-of-court civil settlements with headline-grabbing penalties and promises of better behavior.

Critics, however, say that such fines are trivial in light of the billions of dollars that banks raked in speculating on the subprime mortgage industry. Criminal prosecution of bank executives, these critics contend, is the only way to ensure that the big banks don’t step out of line again.

Nearly nine years since the start of the Great Recession, not one bank executive has been criminally prosecuted. “Instead of trying to indict and convict companies or the individuals responsible for criminal corporate wrongdoing, prosecutors fine the companies,” Jesse Eisinger wrote for the Prospect in the summer issue. “Fines for corporate misbehavior are skyrocketing, but usually these are paid by shareholders and have little effect on corporate executives.”

The Justice Department’s HSBC settlement comes just as Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has called on the government to change how it deals with corporate crime. Last month, Warren’s office released a report detailing how a lack of enforcement has let white-collar criminals off the hook.

"It's not equal justice when a kid gets thrown in jail for stealing a car, while a CEO gets a huge raise when his company steals billions," Warren said in a fiery speech on the Senate floor last month. "It's not equal justice when someone hooked on opioids gets locked up for buying pills on the street, but bank executives get off scot-free for laundering nearly a billion dollars of drug cartel money."  

In a New York Times op-ed right before the Iowa caucuses, Warren called on voters to consider how presidential candidates would utilize presidential power through agency rules and executive actions to crack down on corporate malfeasance—something she says the Obama administration has failed to do.

The two Democratic presidential candidates have been dueling over who would be tougher on Wall Street. Warren, who so far has remained neutral in the race, praised Bernie Sanders on Twitter, saying, “I'm glad [Sanders] is out there fighting to hold big banks accountable, make our economy safer, & stop the GOP from rigging the system.”

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been fighting accusations that she’s beholden to Wall Street and that she wouldn’t come down hard enough on financial misconduct. Her Wall Street reform platform calls for extending the statute of limitations for prosecuting “major financial frauds,” “enhancing whistleblower rewards,” and giving the Justice Department and SEC more resources to prosecute wrongdoing.

Clinton’s critics say the force of that platform is partly offset by the funds she’s taken from major banks and by the Clinton’s campaign’s decision to use former Attorney General Eric Holder as a campaign surrogate, given his lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer and his department’s legacy of corporate leniency.

 

Congressional Commission Moves Toward Privatization of VA

The Commission on Care—a congressionally mandated federal body tasked with evaluating alleged shortcomings at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—is deliberating largely behind closed doors and, according to sources close to the deliberations, may have a heavy bias towards privatization. This is ironic because one of the critiques against the VHA has been its purported lack of transparency. The commission's pro-privatization tilt also worries veterans health advocates who point to research documenting that private health-care providers are not performing as well as the VHA on many measures critical to veterans.

Although some portions of the Commission’s meetings are open to the public, most of its internal deliberations are closed. The commission holds all of its meetings in Washington, D.C., making it impossible for veterans who don’t have the money to fly to the capital to be heard and to observe. Of course, veterans may send in comments to the Commission, but it’s impossible to know how much influence those will have.  This in spite of the fact that the VHA is the largest health-care system in the United States, serving eight million veterans—intensifying public interest in the commission’s deliberations.

The commission did release an interim report, as required by the 2014 law that mandated its creation. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed in the wake of public concern over alleged treatment delays at VA hospitals around the country, charged the commission with examining how the VA should best locate, organize, and deliver its veterans health-care services.

Yet that report identified certain practices that are built in to any government program, such as the federal personnel system, as detrimental to the VA. Among other findings, the Interim Report concluded that one of the primary challenges facing the VHA is meeting the “standards governing health care in the private sector,” a critique with a distinctly conservative ring.

The commission’s explicit charge is “to examine strategically how best to organize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), locate health resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years.” Some veterans’ health-care advocates who have attended the commission’s open sessions say they see signs that influential commission members are pushing for privatization of at least some VHA services. “There seems to a consensus among most of the commission members that some privatization should occur with some members recommending total privatization. It’s clear that a number of the members of the commission—particularly those who come from private sector health-care institutions—have little experience with or knowledge of the unique problems of veterans,” commented one veterans’ health advocate who has attended most of the open sessions and has talked with commission members and staff. 

“The mind set seems to be that the Commission should ‘split the difference’ between those who are determined to hand over services to private sector providers and those who believe veterans are best served if the VA is strengthened and continues to deliver comprehensive services,” said another veterans’ advocate who also asked not to be identified. “Splitting the difference would compromise a high-quality integrated health-care model without saving any money.” 

The subtext of the commission’s interim report and of its open meetings appears to be that the VHA is fundamentally broken, and that private sector health-care is both superior to VHA care and can handle an influx of veterans with complex medical and psychological problems. Yet a 2014 Rand study of veterans’ mental health care explicitly tackled the question of whether the private sector healthcare system was “ready to serve” the needs of veterans. The answer was no.

The commission’s final recommendations are not due until later this year. The big question now is whether the commission will base its recommendations on empirical research, such as the findings of the Rand study, or on the talking points of the VA’s conservative critics on Capitol Hill.

And check out Suzanne Gordon's in-depth take on the Veterans Health Administration's strong performance in the face of right-wing attacks from our Fall 2015 issue. 

The Times’s Sloppy Reporting on Sanders and Veterans Health

On Sunday, The New York Times published a wildly misleading front-page story titled, “Faith in Agency Clouded Bernie Sanders’ V.A. Response.”

The gist of the piece was that Sanders, blinded by his friendliness to government agencies, did not acknowledge the VA scandal of long wait times for services until very late in the game. But read far enough into the detail of the story and the headline is not documented at all—quite the opposite is true.   

As the Times admits much later in the piece, Sanders, as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, realized that Republicans were seriously underfunding the VA, and fought hard for adequate financing. It was the underfunding, not the deeply flawed agency of the Times’s imagination, that led to the long wait times.

The Times got the story wrong in its earlier reporting of this trumped up scandal, and its attack on Sanders relies on its earlier mistakes. For nearly two years, its reporters have been shaping and amplifying a deeply flawed and factually challenged mainstream media narrative that dovetails neatly with the privatizing agenda of right-wing Republicans in Washington.  

As I reported for the Prospect, the VHA is far more cost effective and compassionate than other counterparts in the health-care system treating comparable patients. The right’s agenda, a threat that Sanders appreciated early on, is to privatize much of the VHA. The Times relies heavily on latter day “Veterans Services Organizations” for its sources.

Wade Miller, a Heritage Foundation-funded critic of the VHA, expresses the GOP bias well when he argues that, “the best way we can help veterans is by reducing their need to use the VA.” According to Miller, the “biggest hurdle” to meeting that increased demand is the very fact that veterans’ health care is provided by “a government program.”

In the front-page Monday story by Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, the Times revisited congressional debates about VHA funding and service delivery in 2014 that were much influenced by this perspective. However, the GOP’s ideological fixation with shrinking government is cited only in passing, via a single reference to the views of “some Republican Presidential candidates and a veterans’ organization backed by the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch.”

Instead, Eder and Phillips focus their criticism on Sanders. When Republican opposition to measures like SB 1982, a $21 billion funding package that Sanders introduced in early 2014, helped aggravate the longer wait times that became a Times-reported “scandal” later that same year, Sanders faced “a moment of crisis,” according to Eder and Phillips. “His deep seated faith in the fundamental goodness of government blinded him, at least at first, to a dangerous breakdown in the one corner of it he was supposed to police.”

What was slowing Sanders down and revealing supposed leadership shortcomings, then and now? In part, the Times contends, it was because he “initially saw a conservative plot” to discredit and undermine the VHA so more veterans would support dismantling of the VHA and its replacement with private sector health-care coverage instead. Was this threat a mere figment of the senator’s imagination? Apparently not, according to his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just three days before the Times piece debunking Sanders’s defense of the VHA appeared, Hillary Clinton told MSNBC debate viewers the push for VHA privatization is “another part of the Koch brothers’ agenda. They’ve actually formed an organization to try to being to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized health care for our veterans.” Like Sanders—and under pressure from him on this issue—Clinton said she would work with other “veterans’ service organizations, the veterans of America” to “fix the V.A.” but would “never let it be privatized.”

The group Clinton was referring to is called Concerned Veterans for America, which has few actual members, and unlike real Veterans Service Organizations—like the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Paralyzed Veterans of America and Amvets—it provides no veterans services. Until only six months ago, these four traditional VSOs worked in an alliance called the Independent Budget. In the past, this coalition provided Congress and the White House with its own assessment of the VA’s funding needs. Sanders consulted all of those groups when crafting S.B. 1982 and they supported it. 

The other veterans’ group the Times reporters quote heavily is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). According to a monograph, by Stephen Trynosky, on the political environment that now influences the fate of the VHA, the IAVA is a new kind of VSO—one that has “assiduously embraced a fundraising and revenue model focused heavily on corporate underwriting. … The group’s 2012 annual report lists a constellation of corporate donors and wealthy patrons, some of whom appear to have an interest in the increased privatization of VHA services.”

The Times presents the $21 billion price tag for SB 1982 as excessive, when $21 billion spent over ten years is just a sliver of the VA’s total annual budget of about $160 billion, and miniscule compared to the more than a trillion of direct spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have created so much demand for VHA services. As the Times belatedly acknowledges late in the piece, Sanders did work effectively with his Republican counterparts to enact a $16 billion bill—less than was needed but enough to finance improvements. So apparently, the $21 billion that Sanders originally called for wasn’t so crazy.

In short, Sanders saw the privatization threat and the consequences of underfunding well in advance. He did his best to deal with both threats but was blocked by Republicans. As the Times admits very late in the piece, Sanders’s original funding bill with a price-tag of $21 billion actually got 56 votes in the Senate—not a fringe measure at all—but was blocked by a filibuster. In fact, Republican opponents of the bill weren’t “puzzled” by it as the Times reports—they were adamant that more money should not be spent on veterans’ health care—unless that money is channeled, through the Choice Act and other Republican-sponsored legislative proposals, to private sector providers. Judging by the facts of the case, a better headline and storyline of the piece could have been, “Sanders Resisted GOP Assault on Veterans Benefits.”

The Times needs to move its singular fixation on wait times—real or exaggerated—and also inform its readers about the things the VA does well. A recent study, for example, compared the outcomes for 700,000 California cancer patients who were treated at the VHA with patients covered by private insurance, or Medicare and Medicaid. Particularly relevant to the current wait time debate, it documents the fact that although veterans had to wait longer for access to care than those covered by the other insurance programs, they received more appropriate treatment and had better outcomes. As one of its authors Kenneth W. Kizer MD, MPH (and former Under Secretary for Health at the VA) explains, short delays in care, while unacceptable, may not be as important a variable as getting the right kind of care. Which is why, according to Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled Veterans of America, most of DAV’s 1.3 million members want delays in care to be fixed and the system to be well-funded because they “prefer to be treated at the VHA where they receive holistic services in one place instead of the kind of disjointed care they get in the private sector.”

And check out Suzanne Gordon's in-depth take on the Veterans Health Administration's strong performance in the face of right-wing attacks from our Fall 2015 issue. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sanders was a ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Affairs Committee. In fact, he was a ranking independent member who caucused with Democrats. 

New Mexico Bucks Criminal Justice Reform Trends, Moves Toward Harsher Penalties

Proponents of tough-on-crime policies aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.

In late January, the Republican-controlled New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would expand the number of violent felonies punishable under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Currently, New Mexico law mandates a life sentence for repeat offenders convicted of three separate violent felonies. The statute, if amended, would increase the number of felonies that qualify as “strikes” from five to more than 15 and add offenses like involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery to the list.

In recent years, California and other states have dialed back their three-strikes laws in an effort to reduce their prison populations. But New Mexico has headed in the opposite direction by moving to widen the scope of the law in an effort to keep more people, particularly repeat offenders, behind bars.

The bill’s supporters argue that the current law is inadequate and cite New Mexico’s higher than average rates of violent crime and a spate of high-profile cases in 2015—including the killing of two police officers and the shooting of a four-year-old girl during an alleged road-rage dispute—as evidence that people who commit violent crimes should be subject to harsher penalties, especially if they are repeat offenders.

The tough-on-crime proposals introduced during New Mexico’s current legislative session have struck some opponents as outdated, surfacing at a time when some states are retreating from the draconian laws that were mainstays of the 1990s. But the state’s current trajectory illustrates the difficulty of sustaining the momentum of criminal justice reform: When crime increases, punishment-oriented policies gain political traction.

In the days leading up to the January vote, Republican Representative Paul Pacheco, the bill’s sponsor and a former police officer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the tougher penalties would “incapacitat[e] a thin slice of criminal offenders to make New Mexico safer.”

However, critics have argued that the Pacheco bill would be an expensive undertaking that would have a negligible impact on crime rates. The plan would also eliminate judicial discretion from the sentencing equation: For example, one person convicted of three murders and another convicted of one act of involuntary manslaughter and two armed robberies would receive the same sentence.

In its assessment of the financial impact of the proposed bill, the New Mexico’s public defender agency concluded that the state’s habitual offender statute (which mandates extending a repeat offender’s sentence if the courts conclude that he or she continues to be a threat to public safety) has made the three-strikes law redundant.

Democrats control the state Senate in New Mexico, which makes it unlikely that Pacheco’s bill would become law during the 30-day legislative session that began in late January. But the sentencing proposal is just one of several pieces of “tough-on-crime” legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez and conservative state lawmakers prior to the November election.

Martinez made crime a centerpiece of her recent State of the State address, saying that,  “we need laws that are tough in substance, not just in sound bites.” Other pending bills include a constitutional amendment that would change state bail laws, a measure preserving mandatory minimum sentences, and a proposal that would classify law enforcement officers as a protected class under the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.

In December, the Brennan Center published an analysis of crime rates in 30 major American cities from 2014 to 2015. Researchers found that while some cities saw rates for crimes like murder increase last year, the overall average crime rate for most areas remained unchanged over the two-year span. The national crime rate continues to be significantly lower than the historically high rates of the 1990s.

“Legislators are reacting to certain things that might be happening in their communities, but if we're talking about this historically, we're talking about very, very decreased crime rates since the 1990s,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice told the Christian Science Monitor. “There may be pockets of crime in certain jurisdictions, but it's important to not have a knee-jerk reaction.”

Detroit Sick-Out Critics Frustrated They Can’t Blame it on the Teachers Union

For the past several months, teachers in Detroit have been organizing to protest their unsafe and underfunded public schools. These working conditions, the teachers argue, negatively impact both their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. And students are indeed struggling: Detroit public school students consistently earn the lowest reading and math test scores compared to students in other urban districts across the country.

More recently, teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools throughout the city to shut down. At first it was just a few schools at a time, but earlier this month the teachers escalated to larger, coordinated mass actions. On January 15, for example, 64 schools closed—more than half in the city—as teachers gathered to rally for more resources. Thirty-one thousand students had to stay home that day.

The mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, toured Detroit schools following the protests and reported seeing freezing children wearing winter coats in class, a dead mouse on the floor, and severely damaged facilities. Yet Duggan has limited power over Detroit’s schools; the district has been under state control for nearly seven years.  

These “sick-outs”—as they’re dubbed—have garnered great controversy. While plenty have expressed support for the teachers standing up for what they believe in, others say these educators are selfishly depriving students of their right to an education, and in some cases, free meals. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “there are other venues and ways if people have issues. ... They shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of having kids not in class.”

Perhaps the group that is tripping over themselves the most is the so-called “pro-teacher but anti-union” cohort. It’s maddening for them that they can’t pin these sick-outs on the greedy scheming of the all-powerful teachers union. You know, the ones that just care about their salaries and pensions.

But the union did not spearhead these protests. The interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Ivy Bailey, has repeatedly said she does not support the sick-out approach. (She refuses to condemn the teachers, however, given what she says are extremely legitimate complaints that have gone long ignored.) 

Still, many, like the Detroit News editorial board, have framed their sick-out media coverage around individuals like Steve Conn, an “ousted union president.” By pinning these protests on a former union leader, rather than on the grassroots group of diverse teachers leading them the Detroit News aims to mislead its readers about the source and nature of, and motives behind, the sick-outs.  

Now, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has even filed a lawsuit, singling out 28 defendants, including Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in its complaint. In the suit, according to Governing, DPS takes issue with Conn calling the teacher sick-outs a “huge victory.” The suit also notes that Bailey has not ruled out the possibility of a district-wide strike.

While the union is not leading the protests, it is certainly offering support. Here’s a video the American Federation of Teachers helped to produce on life inside Detroit’s deteriorating public schools:

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