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USApp Managing Editor, Chris Gilson looks at the best in political blogging from around the Beltway. Our round-up of state blogs will follow on Saturday afternoon. 

President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the GOP 

On Friday this week, Hit & Run reports that President Obama has shortened the sentences of 22 drug offenders, doubling his total number of commutations. They say that the move shows that the President’s new openness to clemency petitions is starting to have real results.

In January 2014, President Obama promised major reforms to the way that the National Security Agency (NSA) performs surveillance. This week the Brennan Centre for Justice reviews the progress of these reforms, writing that while a new report from the Director of National intelligence chronicles a number of ‘dizzying’ developments, the big picture has not changed, with the administration still using a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court to direct phone companies to turn all of their phone records over to the NSA.

President Obama also formally announced this week that the U.S. would be pledging to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2015 in line with the United Nation’s 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. Hit & Run says that the pledge has been hailed by some environmentalists, but criticized by those who think they do not go far enough

Moving to the Republican Party, on Thursday, PoliticusUSA writes that the approval ratings for the GOP’s Congressional leaders has sunk to new lows, with only 20 percent of those recently polled feeling that House Speaker John Boehner is doing a good job, and the same for Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. They say that the GOP is unpopular because they are refusing to pass legislation and pushing an unpopular agenda that is far out of step with the non-Republican segments of the country. For many, the Republican Party is definitely out of step in its opposition to same-sex marriage. This week, Outside the Beltway says that the firestorm over Indiana’s recently signed into law Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which allows for discrimination on religious grounds), is the latest skirmish in a 15-year battle over gay rights. Now that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, they say, there is a real fight to be had within the Republican Party over the issue, especially ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

On Thursday, Political Animal looks at the Democratic Party, arguing that it needs to step up on criminal justice reform. They write that with Republicans seem to moving towards accepting the need for such reforms, now is the time for Democrats to be fully on board with such efforts, such as reducing mandatory minimum sentences.

Elections and the road to 2016 

This week Sabato’s Crystal Ball looks at trends in voter turnout, writing that in the last two elections – in 2012 and 2014 – the post 9/11 upswing in turnout has been broken. They say that in 2014, the midterm turnout fell by more than 8.5 million votes compared to four years earlier, and that this may have been caused by voters tiring of the ‘shrill partisanship’ that now characterizes American politics.

On Monday, Roll Call’s Rothenblog looks at whether or not Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth’s entry into the 2016 Illinois Senate race is likely to change the national math. They say that Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran, would be a formidable foe against the incumbent, Mark Kirk, who is a moderate in a Democratic state.

Moving on to the road to 2016, Daily Kos reports on Wednesday that Texas Senator Ted Cruz has surged into the top tier of the Republican’s current crop of candidates, with his support increasing to 16 percent after he announced his candidacy last week.

On Tuesday, Ten Miles Square says that another potential GOP presidential candidate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, has defended discrimination by arguing that customer boycotts are more effective at preventing businesses from having discriminatory practices than federal legislation is. They say that Paul’s distinction that gay couples can be discriminated against because it is based on their ‘behavior’ is not a winning position if he is planning a presidential run, especially among young people, who he is trying to attract.

Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Credit: LBJ Foundations (Flickr, C-BY-2.0)

Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Credit: LBJ Foundations (Flickr, C-BY-2.0)

The former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush is considered by almost all commentators to be a top tier GOP presidential candidate – or is he? Roll Call’s Rothenblog looks at the reasons why Bush will – and will not – get the nomination. In his favor, he has the fact that he has the ‘establishment lane’ of the nomination race all to himself. Against, is his support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul and the Common Core education program puts him at odds with the majority of his party. Political Animal also looks at Bush this week, but in the context of the difference between his candidacy and that of the current Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. They say that even though much has been made of Bush’s position at the center of the GOP establishment, and Walker’s on its conservative side, their policies differ little, with their main points of disagreement being over strategy and tactics, rather than ideology and goals.

Moving on to the Democratic field for 2016, The American Prospect has five radical ideas that Hillary Clinton should support. They argue that the former Secretary of State and First Lady should bring in an Alaska style citizen dividend, endorse a student ‘debt jubilee’, mandatory vacations and paid sick and family leave, as well as universal pre-k and child care, plus a $15 minimum wage. Clinton is widely considered to have the lock on the Democratic nomination more than 18 months before the election, but many are looking for a potential alternative candidate. For some that candidate is the former Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. The Hill’s Congress blog writes on Wednesday that Americans should consider O’Malley for president because of the skills he showed at increasing Maryland’s economic mobility, and reducing the state’s rates of infant mortality and crime, as well as his lack of past scandals. 

Government, the Beltway and Congress’ agenda 

On Wednesday, Crooks & Liars reports that former Internal Revenue Service Official (IRS), Lois Lerner, will not face contempt of Congress charges. They say that Lerner had refused to testify to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Match 2014 on the allegations that the IRS has targeted conservative groups, which had led to the threat of prosecution. Meanwhile, The Hill’s Congress blog looks at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the reforms that have been put into place following the Senate Intelligence Committee’s critical report of the Agency’s interrogation program post-9/11. They say that rather than leaving it up to the CIA to clean up its own operations, Congress should use its power to strengthen analysts in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which would allow it to guarantee the integrity of the intelligence community.

The Daily Signal writes this week on why the current way that the Federal government manages the lands that it owns is not a good deal for Americans.  They say that the government – which owns 28 percent of the country – loses money managing natural resources, while state lands generate significant financial returns, and argues that it is better for states to manage these public lands. While states do have a great deal of fiscal autonomy in many other areas, this can lead to major problems – especially revenue shortfalls, The Atlantic writes this week on the problem of funding state governments through fines, after the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court warned that the court was almost out of money. Much of the state’s revenue shortfall is down to a decline in traffic tickets, which provide most of the state Supreme Court’s funding.

Moving on to the Judiciary, Hot & Run says that a ruling by the Supreme Court this week will have a big impact on Medicaid, after the Court decided 5-4 that health care providers do not have a right to sue states over low Medicaid rates. They report that the Court has said that rather than undertaking legal actions, health providers could appeal directly to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a move that has been anticipated for several weeks, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on corruption charges this week, reports Outside the Beltway. They say that Menendez has been charged with eight counts of bribery that revolve around his relationship with a wealthy Florida eye surgeon. Menendez is the first senator to face federal bribery charges since 1980. 

Foreign policy, defense and trade 

On Friday this week, The Hill’s Congress blog comments that the November climate change deal between the U.S. and China could be a model for future bilateral deals.  They say that ahead of climate negotiations in Paris later this year, the U.S. has shown its climate leadership by making such deals.

Credit: paigeh (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Credit: paigeh (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Last December, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would begin to work towards normalizing relations after more than 50 years of a U.S. embargo against the country. At the time polls showed that Cuban-Americans narrowly opposed the deal. Now, National Journal reports that the polls have shifted so that a majority of that group supports the deal – though their support for changes to the two countries trade relationship is more mixed.

The biggest foreign policy news this week was undoubtedly the announcement on Thursday of a preliminary deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations over that country’s nuclear program. The Atlantic writes that the Obama administration has managed to strike a deal after difficult negotiations but is now facing a Congressional backlash with Republicans blasting the deal and drawing comparisons with the 1938 Munich agreement. The Federalist writes on Friday that the deal gives Iran exactly what they wanted – that is the lifting of onerous Western sanctions in exchange for what they say are relatively few restrictions on their nuclear enrichment program.

This week also saw the Obama administration announce that it would be resuming military aid to Egypt. The Monkey Cage comments that the announcement is not a simple return to business as usual nearly two years after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi after what many felt was a military coup, as it has also ended cash-flow-financing for Egypt’s arms spending, meaning that it has less of a blank check on military spending.

The Hill’s Congress blog also writes this week on what they say is the poor state of U.S. defense spending. They write that unconventional threats to security, such as conflict and violence in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East are not being matched by more spending on hybrid capabilities such as cyber and special operations.

Obamacare and health policy 

This week, The Federalist argues that the president’s signature healthcare reform – Obamacare – creates a powerful incentive for avoiding a higher income, since people who do earn more may end up losing their health insurance subsidies, or may even have to pay them back. Wonkblog, meanwhile looks at the 2006 Massachusetts health care law that inspired the Affordable Care Act (ACA), ‘Romneycare’ (named after the state’s Governor at the time, Mitt Romney). They say that a new study has shown that the state’s reform has not led to a reduction in costly and unnecessary hospitalizations and that it also did not make the system any fairer for minority groups. They argue that the results are concerning for Obamacare, as it operates in a similar fashion. Last week GOP Representative Cathy McMorris-Rogers was left with egg on her face after asking on her Facebook page for Obamacare horror stories, which was then flooded with positive stories. Crooks & Liars reports that she has found a way to put a positive spin on these stories by stating that they are centered on reforms that both parties agreed on, rather than the elements of the ACA that the Republican Party agrees with.

The economy and society 

This week the controversy intensify over Indian’s recently signed into law Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), with the Arkansas legislature also approving a similar law. On Thursday, The American Interest writes that Democrats’ opposition to such laws (which allow people and business to discriminate based on their religious beliefs) is at odds with what voters believe, with a majority of people agreeing with First Amendment based religious liberty protections. They also say that when polling questions focus more on gay rights (and more specifically same-sex marriage), then the issue is still up in the air. Town Hall goes to the defence of RFRA laws, saying that despite what some liberal critics have said this week, they are not the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of our time. They say that the RFRA laws are not at all about stopping same-sex coupled from buying services, but that the argument is over whether or not ardently religious people should be forced to participate in a ceremony that violates their faith.

The Volokh Conspiracy has a different angle on the controversy this week, asking why there have not been more conservative threatened boycotts which demand religious exemption laws or exemptions from involvement in same-sex weddings. They say that while there has been economic pressure in terms of threatened business boycotts of Indiana over its new law, there has not been similar counter pressure from religious groups.

Guns featured

Credit: Michael Saechang, Flickr CC-BY-SA-2.0

On Thursday, Daily Kos look at a new report which has tracked spills and violations from oil and gas companies. They say that states seem not to have good data on these eco-violations, meaning that it is hard for people to separate the ‘good’ companies from the ‘bad’.

Fancy a drink over Easter? Wonkblog’s write up this week on the problems caused by cheap alcohol may give you pause. They say that because of inflation, federal taxes on alcohol have fallen to historic lows, making booze cheap, which in turn contributes to drink-driving deaths and other alcohol related harm.

Another integral part of American life might be doing harm as well – the Second Amendment. The Atlantic writes that pro-gun activists are redefining the public sphere through laws such as Stand Your Ground which removes legal barriers to personal protection.

And finally… 

National Journal looks at the ‘quixotic’ bipartisan campaign to create a new national holiday – Freedom Day.

Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill looks at Washington DC Congressional Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton’s poor parking history after CCTV spotted her failing to negotiate an angle park last week.

Want to know how many elected officials there are in the U.S.? Daily Kos has the ‘mind-blowing’ answer of nearly 520,000. 

Featured image credit: Brent Danley (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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