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Deserting the Middle Ground

The ideological middle in Congress is an endangered species. And, contrary to popular belief, it may not be the fault of politicians.

Many have speculated that congressional redistricting, which occurs every 10 years, is a major culprit. As the theory goes, districts are made politically safer for incumbents, which means they cater more to the majority and neglect the minority.

However, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says data may not support that theory. He cites the work of a trio of political science professors who wrote a paper titled, "Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?" Their answer is "no."

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The Vermont Health Care Option

Pretty much everyone agrees the political battlefront in 2014 and stretching into 2016 will be the future of Obamacare. Democrats want to preserve it. Republicans want to repeal and replace it, though with what isn't certain.

However, looming just over the 2016 horizon is another alternative — the Vermont experiment with a single-payer health care system that could go into effect in 2017.

The Affordable Care Act moves toward universal access to health insurance by trying to fill the gaps in the previous system of employer-provided health insurance, individually purchased self insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. And that doesn't include the health insurance available to military personnel and their families.

Yet gaps remain. There is an entire network of public health clinics serving the homeless, rural poor, low-income children in schools and Native Americans on reservations. And there is gap between those who qualify for Medicaid and who can afford to buy their own insurance under the Affordable Care Act's state health insurance exchanges.

Even sympathetic critics of the current hodge-podge system of health insurance and health care delivery say it is inefficient, doesn't address cost control and fails to establish a reliable pricing system to allow health care to operate in any semblance as a market.

To bridge that final gap requires imposing an entire new system. There aren't a lot of choices.

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Fool's Gold on April Fool's Day

Fittingly on April 1, The Washington Post unmasked some truths about American politics that seem like April Fool's Day leg-pulls. Thanks to Jaime Fuller of The Fix for collecting this batch of improbable truthiness:

  • The U.S. Senate voted in 1928 for funding to knock down the walls of its chamber because of bad air.

  • There actually is a rocket scientist in the U.S. House — Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey — who proved he was smart by beating supercomputer Watson at Jeopardy!

  • A research librarian at the Jefferson library has posted a website containing quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson that he never said. 

  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends for her Senate campaign.

  • Abraham Lincoln is sneaking on Jesus for most books written about him, Lincoln now has 15,000 devoted to his life.

  • "The Ron Paul Family Cookbook," which features recipes such as "How to Eat Like a Republican: Or Hold the Mayo, Muffy – I'm Feeling Miracle Whipped Tonight," has sold more than 400,000 copies.

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From Diplomacy to Gas

U.S. and European leaders are looking for ways to prevent further incursions into Ukraine by Russia and ideas have shifted from diplomatic efforts to exporting natural gas.

Europe is highly dependent on Russian natural gas. The United States and Canada have an abundant supply and could replace Russian sources, leaving a big hole in the pockets of Russian business oligarchs and creating a big headache for President Vladimir Putin.

A worried world sees Russian troops amassed at the border of the newly annexed Crimean region, setting up the prospect for a new cold war — or even a very hot war. U.S. officials believe Putin "is not done in the Ukraine."

Sanctions targeting Putin aides and business backers may have some effect as a diplomatic lever, but U.S. and European geo-political strategists think the biggest impact on Putin would come if he saw his natural gas customers walk away.

Converting from Russian to North American natural gas couldn't be done by simply hitting a switch. The capacity to ship natural gas in liquefied form across an ocean doesn't fully exist. It would represent a gigantic economic opportunity for the North American gas industry by opening up what would largely be a captive market in Europe. But it also would ignite home country controversy over the welter of pipelines and LNG export terminals needed to do the job, not to mention the upward pressure on domestic prices that would result.

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Wyden Calls Out Senior U.S. Spymasters

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden sharpened his criticism of domestic spying abuse this week in a speech to the Oregon World Affairs Council. He essentially said National Security Agency officials have lied about the extent of their spying.

Wyden's comments follow charges by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, D-California, that the Central Intelligence Agency broke into congressional computers and plucked out sensitive documents. CIA Director John Brennan denied the allegation from Feinstein, who has been one of the most stalwart defenders of NSA data gathering from phone and email records.

Wyden, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a longstanding critic of overreaching surveillance techniques by the NSA. Many of his criticisms have been validated by leaked classified information provided by Edward Snowden.

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