Today’s Supreme Court ruling is good news for women’s health

(Credit: CBS News)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that companies cannot patent human DNA. The case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myraid Genetics, centered on two genes, mutations of which increase women’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Myraid contended that because it had isolated the genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, it had the right to be the only party able to analyze and test them – in effect, patenting women’s genes as if it invented them.

Not so, said the Court. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Myriad did not create anything…To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.  Groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the [patent law] inquiry.”

Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 can increase the risk of ovarian cancer by almost 60%. Testing early on for mutations in these genes is a great way for women to prevent ovarian cancer. However, under Myraid, these tests cost around $3,300. Though today’s ruling was relatively narrow – the door is still open on other types of genetic patenting – it will certainly lower costs.

Actress Angelina Jolie, who can afford the test, recently had a double mastectomy because she found mutations in her BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. It’s these types of early and precautionary measures that can help a countless number of women and lower health care costs.

What John McCain’s secret trip to Syria really says about foreign policy

Opps: Sen. John McCain posing with Syrian rebels – and kidnappers.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent his Memorial Day weekend a little bit differently than most of us. He made a super secret trip to Syria to meet with rebel forces there, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the 2011 uprising-turned-civil-war began. However, probably the most important take away from his trip is that the U.S. can get in over its head in Syria without even trying.

While in Syria, McCain allegedly took pictures with rebels that were involved in the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims a year ago, a fact his spokesman called “regrettable.” Whoops. A small thing, right? It’s just a tweet. In itself, yes. But it says way more about intervening in Syria than most people may realize: we don’t know who is who.

Sen. McCain is one of the loudest supporters of arming Syrian rebels, but – as his brief weekend excursion shows – we can get mixed up with the wrong people faster than you can say “no-fly zone.” The rebels are a disconnected hodgepodge made up of political reformers to al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists and everything in between. How do we make sure weapons get to the former and not the latter?

If this story and problem sound familiar it’s because it is. The CIA armed the Afghan mujaheddin (which counted Osama bin Laden in its ranks and eventually became al-Qaeda) in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Short term goal? Achieved – the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. And in the long term? We had 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Though many other factors contributed to these foreign policy developments, al-Qaeda played a large role. The CIA probably did not have these outcomes in mind.

Sen. John McCain visiting a Baghdad market to show how safe it was – accompanied by 100 security guards.

Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and Sen. McCain’s brush with kidnappers demonstrates the need for an extremely cautious Syria policy and why arming the rebels would be exceptionally difficult. Probably not the point McCain was hoping to make, but it’s not the first time the Senator has traveled to a dangerous part of the Middle East only to demonstrate why his position – and reason for going there – was wrong.

The Iraq quagmire isn’t over yet, and it’s getting worse

Though U.S. troops have largely left Iraq, the problems stemming for the 2003 invasion are far from being resolved. More and more, increasing sectarian tensions, a growing Sunni militancy (including al-Qaeda related groups), power grabs by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and poor relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan are flaring up and causing bloodshed. The deaths of 712 people in April made it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008.

Growing sectarianism between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims across the Middle East is a major negative effect of the 2011 “Arab Awakening” protests, and Iraq is no exception. (This issue is extremely broad, so I would recommend reading this excellent report from the Brookings Institution for more background.) Much of the violence in Iraq is drawn on strictly sectarian grounds between the majority Shi’a and minority Sunni and is taking form in tit-for-tat mosque and neighborhood bombings across the country.

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (Photo credit: AP)

In addition, PM Nouri al-Maliki’s re-centralization of power is sparking memories of Iraq’s previous regime. The PM’s increasingly authoritarian moves have more in common with Saddam Hussein’s governing tactics than Thomas Jefferson’s. Since 2008, al-Maliki and small group of Shi’a allies have taken control over the intelligence agencies, military commanders, federal courts, and the central bank. Al-Maliki also has his own special forces unit that reports directly to him and is seen by many as a tool to crack down on Sunni opposition.

This is simply an inverse of how things stood in pre-invasion Iraq, but now instead of Sunni domination of Shi’a, it’s Shi’a domination of Sunnis. As Michael Knights points out in Foreign Policy, “The executive branch is rapidly eclipsing all checks and balances that were put in place to guarantee a new autocracy did not emerge.”

As questions of governing become more and more couched in sectarian terms, getting Iraq on a path to peace will become more and more difficult. Though its influence has diminished in recent years, the United States has an obligation to be involved and do what it can to encourage reconciliation and peaceful opposition. Otherwise, we will stand on the sidelines as Iraq descends into a repeat of its 2006 civil war – an outcome no one wants. U.S. combat troops may be gone, but our work in Iraq is far from over.

The Monday Long Read: Why the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups is less nefarious – and more necessary – than you think

Americans’ favorite government agency to hate, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), has managed to make itself even more loathed by conservatives. How? It is coming under fire for (over?) scrutinizing conservative, tea party groups’ tax-exempt status, which just plays too well into the Republican narrative of persecution on all fronts – from the liberal media to the War on Christmas. However, this particular issue is not so simple.

Let me begin by saying the IRS is not – and should not be – political. Because it wields such power, there must be an overwhelming number of safeguards to ensure its impartiality. If it becomes clear there was serious wrong-doing at the IRS, those responsible should be punished and held accountable. President Obama rightly called the targeting of conservative groups “outrageous.”

However, this story is part of a much wider problem: the huge amount of cash flowing intoMoney pipe campaigns from anonymous groups and the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to do much about it. It all starts with the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, which eliminated caps on groups’ political spending in the name of free speech. It also allowed these groups to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS, under Section 501(c)4 of the tax code. There are two major perks to filing your organization as a 501(c)4: you don’t pay taxes and you don’t have to disclose your donors.

However, this section of the tax code was not created for groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS or the liberal Organizing for America, both of which have explicit political purposes. Though 501(c)4s can engage in some political activity, such as lobbying, their primary purpose must be promoting social welfare – an ill-defined term, to say the least.

Not surprisingly, after Citizens United, applications for 501(c)4 status doubled. And the IRS does not have the tools to make sure no shenanigans are going on. So when does a group that has filed for 501(c)4 status cross the line and become too political for the IRS? It’s hard to say, in large part due to the lack of clear, institutional definitions. It reminds me of how Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography in the Court’s 1964 ruling Jacobellis v. Ohio: I know it when I see it.

Karl Rove’s super PAC

Guess how much conservative groups, including the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP), spent in total in the 2012 election cycle. $254,000,000. AFP received tax-exempt status in 2004 and said it planned to spend ZERO dollars on elections in its application with the IRS. Zero. Guess how much it spent in the 2012 election, according to Open Secrets. $36,352,928. Talk about a lot of social welfare promotion.

I don’t mean to frame this as something that only affects conservatives, but there is no question more outside conservative groups sprang up than liberal ones in the wake of Citizens United. And there is also no question conservative groups spent more than liberal ones on elections, though they were not met with much success in 2012.

So, if you work in the tax-exempt organizations branch of the IRS, what do you do?

With all this in mind, let’s return to the story of “targeting” that broke this weekend. IRS civil servants in Cincinnati, where 501(c)4 applications are processed, looked for words including “patriot” and “tea party” in applications to find groups that may have been overly political and, therefore, required extra scrutiny. Of the 298 groups receiving a second look, 72 had “tea party” in their name, and 13 had “patriot.” Other terms may have been used, but they have not been disclosed yet. One thing you may not hear in conservative talking points is that every group received 501(c)4 status. That’s right – in the witch hunt conservatives are alleging took place, no witches were found, let alone burned.

The problem here isn’t that the IRS was looking to make sure it wasn’t giving tax-exempt

The liberal 501(c)4 was overtly political

status to the groups that flood swing states with partisan attack ads – that’s their job. The problem is that it lacked the institutional mechanisms to do it effectively and free from bias, resulting in non-political appointees in Ohio improvising judgement calls without much oversight. That’s a very serious problem.

But the real problem is that the IRS didn’t go far enough: every group applying for 501(c)4 status deserves a very thorough vetting by the IRS, regardless of its ideological leanings. The IRS needs the right tools to protect the American people from groups anxious to thwart the tax code and spend millions on elections. If it isn’t going to monitor shadowy outside political spending, who is? Congress? Fat chance. And now that the agency is coming under fire from all sides, it’s even less likely to go after these groups in the future, giving them even more free reign.

So, is there a problem? Absolutely, but without the right context you’ll miss the real story.

There’s always money in the banana stand: why budgets don’t actually matter

UntitledThe House of Representatives is set to begin the appropriations process after Congress’ Memorial Day recess. This is much more important that the budget discussions that took place in March and April because appropriations actually play a role in how the federal government spends money. There is basically a three step process that determines levels of federal spending: 1) budgets, 2) appropriations, and 3) authorization. Step one does not matter.

That’s right, the budgets passed in both the House and Senate have zero impact on government spending. Budgets are non-binding resolutions and will never, ever become law. They are a statement of principles: “We believe this program is good, while this program is bad. Fund the first one, cut the second” etc. Each party makes their wish lists, postures and points fingers, and then votes on the meaningless documents. After budgeting comes the appropriations process.

In appropriations, committees look at all the funding requests submitted by members of Congress and decide which should receive money. These requests cover every possible thing you could imagine, and more. Literally everything. One member may want funding for a grant program for research on Lou Gehrig’s disease, while another may want to set money aside for an aircraft carrier. However, just getting money appropriated doesn’t get it spent. Things move on to Round 3: authorization.

Once funds have been appropriated to various projects, Congress then has to authorize the spending. It may come as no surprise, but it’s extremely easy to get lost in the budget process (and maybe even this post). There are a countless number of projects that have had funding appropriated but not authorized. They sit in a weird limbo and nothing ever happens to them.

So, when Democrats say Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would end Medicare as we know it, or when Republicans say Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s budget would “put the breaks on our economy,” just remember neither will. In fact, neither will do anything because that’s not where the money is. But there’s always money in the banana stand.

North Korea chills out – for now

(Photo credit: Military Times)

Coinciding with a visit to Washington by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, signs are emerging that tensions with North Korea may be easing up. North Korea removed two ballistic missiles from launch sites, and intelligence suggests the missiles are now in a non-operational state (that is, not ready to be fired). This is definitely a positive step, but there’s no telling how genuine it is.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula tend to have a cyclical character – North Korea does something provocative, such as conducting a nuclear test or sinking a South Korean naval vessel, the international community condemns the act(s), and to reduce tensions usually provides some much-needed aid. However, that game may be up.

“The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions…are over,” President Obama said in a joint press conference with President Park. This is an interesting development in U.S. relations with the Korean peninsula.

With new – and relatively untested – leaders in North Korea, South Korea, and China, the potential for missteps is greater than it has been in the past. Each has to deal with their own domestic political considerations and prove they are strong leaders while at the same time working to avoid an all-out war. This new cast of characters may not be able to play the game as well as their predecessors did. As if navigating the conflict wasn’t hard enough already.

The purpose of President Park’s visit to Washington was to show relations between the two countries have never been stronger and to make sure Kim Jong Un is well aware the U.S. takes his provocations very seriously. For now, though, we can breathe a sigh of relief. It seems war is no longer an immediate concern.

We are all tax dodgers

Ever bought anything on the Internet? If you have, I’m guessing you didn’t pay any sales tax on it. Now, that’s all well and good, except for one little thing: you’re supposed to. That’s right, states should be collecting sales tax on most online purchases, but they aren’t. Congress is attempting to change that with the Marketplace Fairness Act.

According to some estimates, states miss out on almost $23 billion a year because of the Internet sales tax loophole, and at a time when state coffers are badly in need of replenishing, it makes sense to reevaluate this policy. And since an Internet sales tax wouldn’t technically be new, it also allows members of Congress (read: Republicans) to vote in favor of what is essentially a tax increase without voting to explicitly raise taxes.

On May 6, the Senate passed the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), with 69 Senators voting in favor of it. This bill allows states to collect sales tax from online purchases, but exempts companies that make less than $1 million in out-of-state sales. Companies that conduct business online will be expected to use software that allows them to collect sales tax on behalf of states, though the government will pay for the development of the software.

The underlying logic to the MFA is to level the playing field between brick-and-mortar businesses and online retailers, in addition to providing states new ways to raise revenue. Since every store has to collect sales tax, physical stores are automatically at a price disadvantage compared to online retailers.

The bill isn’t without its flaws, however, and it will likely face some major hurdles in the House. Mega-online retailers, such as Amazon, support the MFA because they believe it will help push out competitors. Companies like Amazon are already so huge, it would be relatively easy to implement the new regulations and processes set up in the MFA. But that’s not the case with every business with an online presence, and Amazon stands to benefit if these small companies go under.

So, is an internet sales tax a good idea? It’s hard for me to say with 100 percent confidence, but I think so. States need money, online retailers have an advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses, and this will – in theory – level the playing field. On the other hand, critics say it may discourage entrepreneurs and/or muscle smaller businesses out of the online market. With the right legislative language, I think it could be done, but that requires an awful lot of faith in Congress.