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Daily Meme: The Obamacare Victory Dance Begins

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Will Disclosure Save Us From the Corrupting Influence of Big Money?

There is going to be a lot of speculation about how the Supreme Court's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC to eliminate the aggregate limits on campaign contributions will affect the influence of big money in politics. That's because it serves to make an already complex system a little more complex, and there are multiple ways the decision could matter; on the other hand, it might make no difference at all. For the moment, I want to consider the role of disclosure, because I think it's going to become increasingly important in the near future, particularly if the Court goes all the way and eliminates all contribution limits. It should be said that in this case, they could have done that, but decided not to (only Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, advocated eliminating all limits). But there is some reason to believe that the conservatives on the Court will go there eventually. And if they do, disclosure is going to be their justification: that as long as we know who's giving money to candidates, the risk of corruption will be small. That might strike you as reasonable, or it might strike you as absurd (you think the banks aren't getting their money's worth when they donate to every member of the committees that oversee them?), but it will be an argument that conservatives are likely to be making with increasing frequency in the coming years as they try to remove the last bricks from the crumbling edifice of campaign finance restrictions.

In his dissent in McCutcheon, Stephen Breyer wrote that "in the absence of limits on aggregate political contributions, donors can and likely will find ways to channel millions of dollars to parties and to individual candidates." He then ran through some scenarios—perfectly legal, if a little complicated—by which they could do that. But as Seth Masket argues, it isn't like it's hard at the moment for your average billionaire to give gobs of money to his favored candidate:

Donors want to donate. Candidates want to receive. If you erect a wall in between them, money will typically find a way around it. In the vast majority of cases, this is not a criminal enterprise. It simply means that once a donor reaches her contribution limit, she will find another way to get the money to candidates who need it. That could mean contributing to a Super PAC, a 503(c)(4), an independent expenditure committee, etc. That money can still be put to use helping out candidates, but the flow of the money is much less direct and much less transparent.

It's true that the contributions we're talking about here will be easier to track than 503(c)(4) contributions, which don't have to be disclosed. But disclosure—not just how it works, but whether it works in stopping corruption—is something we're going to have to do a lot more thinking about in the coming years. Because as I said, if the Roberts Court takes the final step and declares even the limits on direct contributions to candidates to be unconstitutional, they will almost certainly justify it by saying that disclosure is sufficient to forestall corruption. It's OK if the Koch brothers write Mitch McConnell a check for $20 million for his next campaign, because we'll all know about it, and we'll keep our eagle eyes on McConnell to make sure he isn't doing the Kochs' bidding.

Consider what John Roberts wrote in this passage of his decision (and keep in mind that when he says "speech" he means money): "Disclosure requirements may burden speech, but they often represent a less restrictive alternative to flat bans on certain types or quantities of speech. Particularly with modern technology, disclosure now offers more robust protections against corruption than it did when Buckley was decided." He's right in a narrow sense about technology. In the mid-nineties I did a project for an organization focusing on campaign finance reform, and back then you had to actually go down to Federal Election Committee headquarters and look through microfilms one by one to see who had contributed to whom. Today the FEC's web site may still be among the government's worst, but there are people like the Center for Responsive Politics who put the data together for easy searching.

But does the fact that the information is out there mean there's actual accountability and that donors aren't wielding undue influence? It's a complicated question to answer, and there are many ways to look at the problem. But we should probably start thinking about it now.

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Roberts Court: Government Must Be By, and For, the Wealthy

Everyone who thinks that the rich don't have enough influence on American politics can rest easier. In an expected but still depressing decision today, the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits on how much an individual can donate to politicians and political parties within a 2-year window as a violation of the First Amendment. Having already made it impossible for Congress to place significant restrictions on campaign spending, a bare majority of the Court is now chipping away at the ability of Congress to place limits on donations as well.

It must be said that Chief Justice Roberts's plurality opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC has a certain logic if one accepts the key underlying premise. Relying on the Court's 1976 opinion Buckley v. Valeo, Roberts argues that the only legitimate reason for limiting campaign donations or spending is to address corruption. (Under this logic, Buckley gave Congress and state governments very little leeway to restrict campaign spending, but left them with much more latitude to restrict campaign donations.) According to the Court, "Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—"quid pro quo” corruption. Based on this premise, Roberts reasons that aggregate, as opposed to individual, limits do not plausibly address corruption: "the aggregate limits prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits Congress views as adequate to protect against corruption." If a donation of $5,200 to nine candidates cannot lead to quid pro quo corruption, it's hard to see how a tenth or eleventh would. Therefore, legislative limits on individual donations can be consistent with the First Amendment, but limits on aggregate donations cannot.

As Justice Breyer explains in a powerful and frequently devastating dissent, this logic is overly simplistic. Most importantly, to define "quid pro quo" arrangements as the only corruption that Congress can address is far too narrow, and has no basis in the Court's precedents. The political process can be corrupted by the influence of money without outright bribery being involved. Congress has legitimate interests that go well beyond preventing quid pro corruption: an interest in upholding the integrity of the political process. As Breyer observes, this interest is inherent to the values of the First Amendment itself:


...the First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech, but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.

What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption. Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary "chain of communication" between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress' concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many. [...]

The upshot is that the interests the Court has long described as preventing "corruption" or the "appearance of corruption" are more than ordinary factors to be weighed against the constitutional right to political speech. Rather, they are interests rooted in the First Amendment it- self. They are rooted in the constitutional effort to create a democracy responsive to the people--a government where laws reflect the very thoughts, views, ideas, and sentiments, the expression of which the First Amendment protects.

Breyer then goes on to detail how aggregate donations can be used to subvert the democratic process. It would be possible for donations for over a million dollars to a political party to be legal, and a wealthy donor would also be permitted to donate an addition $2.4 million to a party's national candidates for office. Parties will surely take notice of these large donations, a rather important potential source of the appearance of corruption given the the increasingly hierarchical, leadership-driven nature of our political parties in Congress. In addition, money given to candidates need not stay with that candidate. There's a reason why members of Congress in safe seats continue to raise large amounts of money; this money can be used to give to candidates in close races and create political debts that might be repaid in the future. The proliferation of PACS adds further potential for corruption: "without any aggregate limits, a party will be able to channel $2 million from each of ten Rich Donors to each of ten Embattled Candidates."

As Breyer argues, allowing the very rich to distort the marketplace of ideas to this extent is inconsistent with the very values the First Amendment protects. There is certainly the potential for restrictions on campaign donations or spending to be inconsistent with the First Amendment, but Congress needs much more leeway that the Supreme Court gives it here.

Admittedly, the straightjacket could be even tighter. Justice Thomas, in his concurrence, argues that Buckley v. Valeo should be overruled entirely and all legislative limits on donations be considered presumptively unconstitutional. It says something that none of the other Republican appointees were willing to go quite this far in explicitly requiring a government by and for the plutocracy. But it's also true that the superficially more moderate Republican justices may be headed to the same destination on a highway with a somewhat lower speed limit.

As Ari Berman of The Nation points out, there is a particularly cruel irony about the Roberts Court's attack on campaign finance reform in cases like McCutcheon and Citizens United. On the one hand, the Court is making it nearly impossible for Congress or state legislatures to reduce the influence of money in politics, holding restrictions unconstitutional even in cases where they don't suppress speech at all. On the other hand, the Court has been extremely hostile to the voting rights. On the one hand, they've upheld vote suppression at the state level even when these restrictions are directed at concededly non-existent problems. On the other hand, they've eviscerated the Voting Rights Act with an opinion that finds no discernible basis in the text of the Constitution or the Court's precedents. To the Roberts Court, money should talk as loudly as possible while ordinary voters can take a walk.

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The News Isn't the Silencing. It's the Debate

The event was billed as a discussion about "What It Means To Be Pro-Israel." It was actually a screening of a new film ostensibly aimed at proving that the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group, J Street, is aligned "with the Arab side" against Israel. The film, The J Street Challenge, features talking heads of the Jewish right haughtily describing their opponents as arrogant. It begins with a quote from George Orwell, an unintentionally appropriate touch in an thoroughly Orwellian movie. By the final credits, it turns out that the film is also somewhat mislabeled: Its ultimate target isn't J Street or its support for a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The target is American Jewish liberalism as such.

The screening took place last Thursday in a rented hall at the University of Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia—the umbrella organization of the city's Jewish community, which could reasonably be expected to stay neutral in internal ideological arguments. The cosponsors included a predictable list of right-wing organization—but also Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the roof body for Jewish student activity on local campuses. At Penn, one of Hillel's most active constituents is J Street's student arm, J Street U. Stunned student leaders charged that by sponsoring the screening, Hillel's adult board had moved from hosting debate to smearing a member group.

(Full disclosure: I've been a paid outside speaker at events organized by J Street—and by other organizations with a wide spectrum of views on the Israel-Palestine issue.)

One way of looking at the Philadelphia affair is that it's the latest in a new wave of attempts to shut down debate among American Jews about Israel. As an Israeli visiting America, I will parenthetically note that the would-be silencers look ludicrous. They insist that Jews speak in one voice, as if Jews have ever spoken in one voice about anything or even put a value on doctrinal unity; they want to stop arguments about Israeli policy when those same arguments are carried on, in gorgeous cacophony, every day in Israel's parliament, press and half its living rooms.

But let's put that small absurdity aside. It's important to see the fracas in Philly and elsewhere from an additional angle: Debate is breaking out all over in American Jewry, and especially among younger Jews. The old organizations that have tried to equate "pro-Israel" with support for hawkish policies in Israel are on the defensive.

In late February, for instance, there was a flurry of news reports in Jewish publications and the general media on clashes over limiting speech within the Jewish community about Israel. In one case, the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial To the Holocaust in New York canceled a planned book evening with journalist and historian John Judis, author of Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. The museum director, David Marwell, said his staff planned the event without his knowledge and criticized what he said was the book's depiction of "the pernicious impact of American Zionist and pro-Israel influence on American policy." Even discussing that idea seemed too dangerous. Then, a few days later, apparently yielding to criticism, Marwell reinstated the book event. So let's take a deep breath and ask: What was the news here–the cancellation or the fact that the discussion will take place?

Another item: The principal of Ramaz, a prestigious Modern Orthodox high school in New York City, overruled an invitation from his students' Politics Society to Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University to speak at the school. The invitation didn't mean that the students agreed in advance with Khalidi's perspective; it meant that they were ready to consider or contend with it. The principal didn't think they were ready for that. Within American Jewry, the Modern Orthodox strand is known for leaning to conservative politics in general, and in particular to hawkish, pro-settlement views on Israel. The news here wasn’t the cancellation; it was the Orthodox students breaking out of the bubble to invite Khalidi.

Ramaz, by the way, advertises its academic level by listing the colleges where recent graduates study. The list includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth—and Columbia, where some of this year's grads may well register for Khalidi's courses. So: After a summer's vacation or a gap year, will they be intellectually ready to weigh his presentation of history?

According to The J Street Challenge, no. One theme of the film is the naiveté of young people today who, according to Daniel Gordis of Shalem College in Jerusalem, are living in a fantasy of a world without religions or nations from John Lennon's "Imagine." Gordis's disdain for young minds is, shall we say, an interesting approach for a college VP.

But then, the film also presents Robi Damelin as an example of the foolishness of seeing support for a two-state agreement as support for Israel. Damelin is Israeli. Her son was killed while serving as an Israeli reservist at a West Bank checkpoint during the Second Intifada. She's a member of the Parents' Circle, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict and seek a peaceful resolution. Mind-bogglingly, though, the film also shows conservative American blogger Noah Pollak as he decries the "arrogance involved of an organization … of Americans who don't live there, whose children are not in the army, whose family members are not the ones who could be killed by suicide bombers, giving instructions to Israel…" From this we learn that it's arrogant for U.S. Jews take a position similar to Damelin's, but it's the essence of humility for Pollak to want Israelis to bear the dangers of permanent occupation. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Pollak is quite willing to have my children bear the risks of not making peace.

What's the suggested cure for naiveté? Certainly not checking the film's repeated insinuation that J Street supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; a two-second Internet search would lead to J Street's repeated condemnations of BDS.  Rather, the film prescribes a dose of what's supposed to be history of the conflict—in fact, a tired account of an unflawed Israel and changeless Arab positions. As proof that Arabs aren't interested in peace, for example, we're offered the 1967 Khartoum Resolution, in which Arab states rejected recognizing or negotiating with Israel. (Actually, the meaning of the Khartoum Resolution was more complicated, but I'll skip the scholarly debate about that.) You'd never know that the two most important signatories, Egypt and Jordan, have since negotiated with Israel and signed lasting peace agreements.

I could give a long list of the inaccuracies, distortions and possible slander in the movie. It would get tiresome. Facts obviously weren't a major concern to the producers. The purpose was to reassure those who believe in a threatened myth, to give them the chance to boo those who threaten it, and to wrap the whole thing up with an attack on people who believe that conflicts, or at least this conflict, can be resolved by human effort. For anyone who has moved on to a more complex view of Israel, and for anyone who believes that it is a Jewish value to work at making the world a better place, The J Street Challenge is likely to produce nausea or pity. The final Orwellian touch is the name of the group that produced it: Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

"Our board was outraged not by the movie" as part of an open dialogue about Israel, "but for Hillel to cosponsor [it] was in our eyes really wrong," Ryan Daniels, the co-chair of J Street U at Penn told me this week. "Nothing like this has happened where Hillel attacked the work of students, ever." The students' protests were not only justified but necessary, as were objections within the Jewish community to Federation sponsorship. At Hillel, students weren't consulted. At the Jewish Federation, carefully formulated guidelines on Israel events were reportedly ignored by the event's backers. The screening was a gambit by a minority.

And that's a critical part of the story: The defenders of the myth are now fighting a rear-guard action. The strange idea of keeping Jews from arguing about Israel is going out of fashion.

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Laying It All Out On Medicare

The release of a new Paul Ryan budget plan is always the occasion for a lot of ridicule from liberals, for a whole bunch of reasons, and this year's will be no different. Ryan's budgets always manage to combine a remarkable cruelty toward poor people with a sunny optimism that draconian cuts to social services will result in a veritable explosion of economic growth, allowing us to balance the budget without taking anything away from the truly important priorities (like military spending) or, heaven forbid, forcing wealthy people to pay more in taxes.

I'm sure there are other people preparing detailed critiques of the Ryan budget, but I want to focus on one thing this brings up: the question of how we talk about Medicare. As he has before in his budgets, Ryan proposes to repeal the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, like subsidies for middle-class people to buy insurance and the expansion of Medicaid, but he'd keep the tax increases and Medicare cuts that the bill included in order to pay for it all, which helps him achieve his "balanced" budget.

Yes, it's true that when Ryan was running for vice president, he joined Mitt Romney in condemning those very Medicare savings. But nobody really believed he was doing anything at the time but being a team player. So we can give him credit for taking at least a step toward putting his money where his mouth is on Medicare. Sure, it may be couched in some misleading words (the document refers to "strengthening Medicare" no fewer than ten times), but there's no mistaking the policy.

Because the rest of his party is, to put it kindly, of two minds when it comes to the program. On one hand, they will tell you, Medicare is unsustainable, a ravenous beast that will devour the entire nation's financial well-being if we don't find a way to suppress its appetite. In Washington-speak, this is translated as "doing something about entitlements." We have to Do Something About Entitlements! If you don't want to Do Something About Entitlements, you're just not serious about our nation's fiscal challenges.

On the other hand, Republicans believe that Medicare is utterly sacrosanct, a jewel whose every facet is so perfect that even the most modest attempt to curtail its costs should be met with howls of anguish and outrage. Or at least that's what they believe at election time, when they'll air one ad after another condemning Democrats for cutting the Medicare seniors so desperately need. Democrats all over the country have been subjected to ads saying, "Congressman Fnurbler voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare!" over a picture of an elderly couple sitting at the kitchen table, looking over their bills with an engulfing despair, then meeting each other's eyes in a tragic look that says, "Thanks to Congressman Fnurbler, all is lost. If only we had been able to pay our gas bill so we could stick our heads in the oven and end it all right now."

Republicans are so deeply opposed to the idea of cutting Medicare that they can't even stomach anyone trying to see if Medicare is spending its money wisely. Mention the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a component of the ACA that was designed to restrain Medicare costs if they rose too fast, and steam will come out of their ears. (The IPAB would make recommendations to Congress on ways to save money, and Congress would have to act on them. But since Medicare spending has slowed dramatically in the last couple of years, the requirement has yet to kick in, and President Obama hasn't bothered to appoint anyone to what is still a theoretical board.) They waged a virtual war on comparative effectiveness research, effectively saying that it was dangerous to even ask which competing treatments work well and which don't.

In other words, most Republicans believe we must, must, must reduce the cost of Medicare—excuse me, Do Something About Entitlements—but are adamantly opposed to every step that has been taken to reduce the cost of Medicare. I'm sure that lots of them are sympathetic to Ryan's vision, which is to essentially turn the program into a voucher system, in which the government helps you buy private insurance, and over time costs magically go down (and if you're thinking that sounds a lot like what people are getting on the Obamacare exchanges, any Republican will tell you that it's totally different because freedom).

So let's give Paul Ryan some credit. Sure, his numbers might not add up. But when he puts out a budget, there's no mystery about where he's coming from and what he wants to do.


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Daily Meme: Spy Games

  • Cold War nostalgia is hot these days. Everyone who's anyone is watching The Americans, FX's taut drama about Soviet sleeper cell spies living in the the suburbs of Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids by day and carrying out hits by night. Vladimir Putin got geopolitcally retro with his annexation of Crimea recently. And today we learn that there is some good old-fashioned spy bargaining afoot!
  • The New York Times reports that in a bid to ensure that the Israeli-Palestinean peace talks stay alive through 2015, the U.S. and Israel are negotiating the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former American Naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of giving secrets to the Israeli government. Which got us thinking about our favorite spy stories through the years ...
  • Since we've been watcing the aforementioned The Americans, we'll kick off with the Russian agents. There's of course The Rosenbergs—Ethel and Julius—who were executed for espionage in 1953. Their trial was famous, coming in the midst of American anti-communist hysteria, and there were efforts to clear their names both in the U.S. and abroad. 
  • Aldrich Hazens Borne, a CIA analyst, was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia beginning in 1985.
  • In 2010, the FBI arrested 11 Russian agents who had been living covertly in the U.S. including Anna Chapman, a real-life femme fatale who milked her fame, tabloid-style
  • The most famous of the femme fatales is Mata Hari, a former courtesan and exotic dancer (she has great Google image search results). She was arrested by the French government and executed in 1917 for spying for the Germans, though as it turns out, she might have been innocent.  
  • As a side note, women are thought to generally make excellent spies.
  • Nathan Hale was a Revolutiouary War spy for the colonies. He was caught and killed by the British in 1776. 
  • Belle Boyd, "the Siren of the Shenandoah," was a teenage spy for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite being on the wrong side of things, she seems to have been quite the lively one: "she charged $3 to carry letters across the lines and $2 for liquor, and once attacked a Confederate soldier who refused to pay for his bottle (30 rebel men were badly wounded in the ensuing brawl)." She survived the war, and cannily embarked on a book tour shortly thereafter. 
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The CIA and the Moral Sunk Costs of the Torture Program

This morning, The Washington Post has a blockbuster story about that 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program. The part that will likely get the most attention is the conclusion that torture produced little if any useful intelligence, which is extremely important. But even more damning is the picture the committee paints of a CIA that all along was trying to convince everyone that what they were doing was effective, even as it failed to produce results. I have a post on this over at the Post this morning, but I want to elaborate on this aspect of the story. This is a tale of moral sunk costs, and how people react when they've sold their souls and realize that they won't even get paid what they bargained for.

In case you're unfamiliar with the economic idea of sunk costs (here's a nice summary), it's basically the idea of throwing good money after bad: once you've gone down a particular path, what you've already invested (money, time, effort) acts as an emotional tug preventing you from abandoning that path even if a more rational assessment would dictate that you change course.

In the case of the CIA (and the Bush administration), they had a moral sunk cost in the torture program. They had made an extraordinary ethical choice, to make torture the official policy of the United States (and renaming it "enhanced interrogation" wasn't going to fool anyone, not even themselves). Once that decision was made and the torture began, it had to be effective, and not just effective but fantastically effective, in order to justify the moral compromise they had made. When the torture program failed to produce the results they hoped for, they could have said, "This stuff isn't working; let's focus on what does." But by then they couldn't retreat; the only hope of balancing the moral scales was to go forward. They were probably hoping that if they just kept on torturing, eventually it would produce something helpful and the whole program could be justified. But in the meantime, they'd try to fool people into thinking it was working splendidly:

One official said that almost all of the critical threat-related information from Abu Zubaida was obtained during the period when he was questioned by [FBI interrogator Ali] Soufan at a hospital in Pakistan, well before he was interrogated by the CIA and waterboarded 83 times.

Information obtained by Soufan, however, was passed up through the ranks of the U.S. intelligence community, the Justice Department and Congress as though it were part of what CIA interrogators had obtained, according to the committee report.

"The CIA conflated what was gotten when, which led them to misrepresent the effectiveness of the program," said a second U.S. official who has reviewed the report. The official described the persistence of such misstatements as among "the most damaging" of the committee's conclusions…

The committee described a similar sequence in the interrogation of Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who provided a critical lead in the search for bin Laden: the fact that the al-Qaeda leader’s most trusted courier used the moniker “al-Kuwaiti.”

But Ghul disclosed that detail while being interrogated by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq who posed questions scripted by CIA analysts. The information from that period was subsequently conflated with lesser intelligence gathered from Ghul at a secret CIA prison in Romania, officials said. Ghul was later turned over to authorities in Pakistan, where he was subsequently released. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2012.

So over and over, the CIA is attributing information they got through ordinary interrogation to torture. If the torture program was even marginally effective, there would be no need to do so; it wouldn't be threatened by the fact that some information came from other means, so long as torture was producing some other information as well. Only if the torture program was useless would it become necessary to lie about it.

The picture this paints is one of an agency that is simultaneously torturing prisoners, without much effect, and also trying desperately to tell a story to the rest of the government that the torture is working. And to this day, everyone on up the chain—most recently Dick Cheney, who said the other day of the torture program that he'd do it all over again, because "The results speak for themselves"—insists the same thing. Because if it didn't work, what are they? They're monsters. They transgressed one of humanity's most profound moral injunctions, for nothing. And no one wants to believe that about themselves.


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Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

Since the start of the Recession, the dollar amount of food stamps used at military commissaries, special stores that can be used by active-duty, retired, and some veterans of the armed forces has quadrupled, hitting $103 million last year. Food banks around the country have also reported a rise in the number of military families they serve, numbers that swelled during the Recession and haven’t, or have barely, abated.

About 5,000 food-stamp recipients listed their occupations as active-duty military in 2011, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program. It’s a tenth of one percent of the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps on an average month. The military also has its own program designed to provide families with additional money for food so that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Uptake is low—only 427 families used it. Those who work on anti-hunger issues worry that there are more complicated reasons that may obscure the whole, hidden problem. No one knows how big the problem is, but they’re concerned it’s growing.

Military pay for enlisted members starts at $1,285 a month, which works out to a little more than $15,000 a year. Pay shoots up the longer an enlisted man or woman stays in, is promoted, and is given money to support any children they may have, up to two, but the average enlisted member with less than four years of experience makes about $21,000 a year. Most people agree that’s enough for one young person without children. Once married, however, times get harder. Thirty percent of military spouses between the age of 18 and 24 are unemployed, in part because they’ve likely relocated to be with their spouses and are far from family and support networks. Couples with more than two children living only on an enlisted member’s salary of that amount are well below the poverty line. That doesn’t account for the other financial problems they may face, like unpaid student loans that follow them into the military, credit card debt, or a history of family poverty: Ten percent of those who enlist come from families in the bottom quintile of incomes. “Some of them entered the military to improve their financial situation,” says Mike Ivers, head of a food bank in Yuma, Arizona, near two military installations. “And then something always happens that quickly and easily.”

Like many modestly paid, working Americans, other military families are only slightly above the poverty line and may still struggle to buy food. It’s a larger problem among the working poor: benefits fade out as workers move up the income ladder, but disappear completely before families make enough to be self-sufficient. The 2008 farm bill, the legislation that authorizes the food-stamp program, allowed states to ease some of the restrictions on how people qualify to try to address this need—family gross incomes could go above the usual income threshold as long as necessary expenses on housing and childcare caused them to fall below it. These new rules might account for some of the growth in food stamp use, both overall and among the military, during the recession. Most experts, however, attribute the rise to that fact that more families became poor, and poor families became poorer, and there’s no reason to believe the increased reliance on them at military commissaries is any different.

The use of food stamps may only hint at part of the issue, anyway. The tax-free allowance members receive for off-base housing counts as income in the qualification tests for food stamps. It’s different treatment from what the civilian population receives: housing assistance like the Section 8 program isn’t counted as income for food-stamp purposes. The added income might push some families who would otherwise qualify above the income threshold, which means they struggle to put food on the table but can’t get help. “This is different from the way that ordinary Americans would be treated,says Josh Protas, director of government affairs for Mazon, a Jewish-faith-based anti-hunger organization. “There’s this extra barrier for active-duty military.”

Beryl Burazo was working as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Yuma food bank when she married an active-duty Marine in July 2012. Burazo made a small living stipend and is a type 1 diabetic requiring expensive medication, and she and her husband were struggling to afford food. They ate far too many Ramen noodles. “For about three or four months, that was one of the basic meals,” she says. “That’s not healthy at all, but, unfortunately, if that’s what you can afford that’s what it comes down to.” Burazo started looking for assistance. She didn’t want to rely on the food bank because she worked there, and wanted a more sustainable way to afford food until her time with VISTA ended and she could get a full-time job. With their housing allowance, she and her husband made too much money to qualify for food stamps. She looked into the military’s special program designed to help families afford food, but learned that her husband would have to apply through his chain of command. He didn’t want to do it. Burazo talked to other military families, and found that few knew about this special program and, when they learned about it, were reluctant to apply through their bosses. “I know there’s a lot more out there that need help than actually do come to ask for help,” she says.

There’s evidence for that in the high numbers of families seeking assistance from food banks and pantries, emergency services that provide boxes of kitchen staples to families every few weeks and offer privacy to their clients. Operation Homefront, an organization that provides financial assistance to military members and their families, saw the number of clients they serve peak during the recession, especially for food assistance. The need has dropped in the past two years but remains triple what it was before the recession, a spokesman said. The organization helped about 30,000 families in 2013 with emergency food—in 2011, the number was 60,000 families. That number includes recent veterans, which is a different but related problem. Troop levels have been reduced by about 100,000 soldiers in the past year, and those men and women are coming home at a time of high unemployment. They often return to the areas they grew up in or were last stationed in, and are among the populations these food banks serve. The military is basically a large employer going through layoffs, and though there are initiatives designed to encourage employers to hire them, there are few jobs in the lagging economy. “While everybody is glad to see more and more of our service members coming home, in many cases those service members were counting on combat pay that isn’t there any more,” says Aaron Taylor, the spokesman for Operation Homefront. “That has a financial impact.”

Food banks around the country near military installations all say the need among the military population, like the overall population, remains high. Brenda Swain, who runs a food bank in Falmouth, Massachusetts, estimates that active-duty military families make up about seven percent of her clientele, and it rises to ten percent when she counts families that include veterans. Karen Joyner, who runs a food bank in Virginia, only recently started to collect data, but found that the her network was distributing more than 100,000 pounds of food a month to active-duty military personnel. Ivers, the head of the food bank where Burazo works—they later hired her as an employee—says he serves between 150 and 200 military families a year, and has served more than 6,000 veterans in the past two years. The numbers of military families coming to his food bank for emergency food spiked during the government shutdown last October. “You have a lot of entry-level marines and army individuals, and even the border patrol, wind up coming to the food bank because they live paycheck to paycheck,” he says.

The military says it doesn’t have a problem with hunger among its active-duty population, saying members are well-compensated compared to the private sector and fed three meals a day in the barracks. Members of a military are active volunteers at local food banks. They raise money or run a small food drive for needy families within their ranks, who may be subtly discouraged from seeking help outside the military. “We always say it’s a dirty little secret,” Joyner says. “The military has a pride relating to what they do,” she says. “They’re supposed to be taking care of others in their country but if you have to go and ask for emergency food assistance, they think that means that you’re not even capable of taking care of yourself or your family.”

In their need and in their shame, members of the military aren’t that different from the population as a whole. During the recession, food-stamp enrollment more than doubled, to 47 million in an average month, but the numbers of families who reported they didn’t have consistent access to nutritious meals was higher, about 50 million. Despite the ever-vigilant watch for food-stamp fraud, a much bigger problem is that there’s a gap between those who need help and those who receive it. If those who are actively serving, or have just finished serving the country, are falling through it, what does that augur for the rest of the population? “I think it’s not a point of pride that members of our military might be eligible for SNAP so it’s a delicate situation to discuss,” Protas says. “There’s some shame about this.”

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Daily Meme: Obamacare's Computer Problems

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Jeb Fever Sweeps GOP; Symptoms Likely to Be Mild, Temporary

In the first of what will surely be a long string of genuflections, abnegations, and abasements, potential Republican presidential candidates journeyed to the sands of Las Vegas last weekend to speak to the Republican Jewish Coalition, though everyone there seemed to agree that there was really an audience of one: Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who flushed nearly $100 million of his money down the drain in the 2012 presidential campaign. Among those arriving on bended knee was one politician who has been out of office for seven years, and was never knows as a darling of the Republican base. But as Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported in The Washington Post, large portions of the GOP establishment look toward 2016 and feel a stirring deep within their hearts, a hope and a dream that goes by the name of … Jeb.

That's right, Jeb Bush, who you may recall is the brother of one George W. Bush, whose time in office did not go particularly well. Rationally speaking, there's no reason why Jeb should have to answer for Dubya's failures, of course. The two brothers were never all that much alike; Jeb always seemed more thoughtful and less impulsive than his older brother, and unlike the former president, he can navigate his way through a sentence in the English language. You can see why the big-money types would be attracted to him (he's the kind of grown-up they feel comfortable with), but the reality is that Jeb would have to wade through an awful lot of questions about the legitimacy of political dynasties and the public's appetite for yet more Bush.

Yet I don't think that's the biggest impediment to a Jeb presidency. A line from Rucker and Costa's article gets at part of it: "I think he is a talented, credible, thinking leader," says a former Romney adviser. "The question is, how much appetite is there in the Republican Party and in the general electorate for that?" There's probably more in the general electorate than in the Republican party, but even so, I have to wonder if the real appetite question is whether Jeb has the appetite for a presidential campaign.

That appetite isn't in and of itself enough to make you a top contender for the nomination, much less the nominee. But it's the bare minimum you need. Running for president is so grueling that if you don't want that prize with a mad desperation, you won't get anywhere. Now, it should be said that Bush hasn't been much in the public eye in recent years, so we don't know where his head is at. But I always got the impression that he thinks he'd be a fine president, but he wasn't going to crawl over hot coals to get there.

I could be wrong, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if Bush turned out to be the Fred Thompson of 2016. You may recall that in the fall of 2007, many establishment Republicans were clamoring for the actor and former senator to run for president. After all, he had played presidents on TV, and had a deep and gravelly voice (or as Chris Matthews said with admiration at the time, "Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva?"). But when Thompson started to campaign, it turned out he didn't have much fire in his belly. He showed up late, he was lackluster when he got where he was going, and before long people were throwing around words like "lazy." He soon pulled out of the race.

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