As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

He's Baaack

If I were Roland Burris and I wanted to become a Senator this way, I would pitch a tent outside the Senate floor and hold vigil until the Dem leaders inside wearily decide that it's too embarrassing to hold him back any longer. Especially because their legal argument has been revealed to be pretty silly.

Roland Burris may return to Washington next week to demand that he be accepted as the legitimate Senate appointee to replace President-elect Barack Obama and be sworn into office, according to a Burris adviser.

If Burris' appointment is not accepted, he will file a lawsuit challenging Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership's refusal to seat him, the adviser said [...]

Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have refused to seat Burris, arguing that his appointment by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was not certified by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

But on Friday night, White submitted a document to the Senate certifying Burris' appointment. White's action followed an earlier decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that Blagojevich's approval alone was all that was needed for Burris to take the seat.

This is going to end really ugly, and Blagojevich can't be removed from office fast enough to stop it. Burris has a legal claim to the seat, no matter how tainted the process is. Tying him up in court while seating a designate from Blago's post-impeachment successor Pat Quinn will probably make this situation WORSE. Just a disaster on all levels.

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New Attorney General Rules

According to Jon Kyl, and I would imagine a substantial portion of the right, you cannot become Attorney General unless you unequivocally support torturing human beings.

KYL: I think Eric Holder will have some problems. He has not been able to stand up to his bosses in the past, President Clinton when he wanted to do pardons that I think Holder must have realized were big mistakes but he facilitated. And he’s also made some very unfortunate statements about our interrogation of prisoners, terrorists, and other things that lead me to believe that he is not going to be supportive of the Patriot Act, the FISA law, and others. And if he can’t be supportive of those laws, then he shouldn’t be Attorney General.

Got that? If you cannot be trusted to violate federal and international law, you cannot be allowed to become the nation's top law enforcement official. This is the looking-glass view of the world on the right.

And it infects the discourse. I would argue the reason for Obama's stilted rhetoric and the general reticence, outside of John Conyers, to prosecute the war crimes of the torture regime is that nobody in the establishment ever really pushed back in a coordinated fashion on the mainstreaming of torture, that allows for this kind of a statement by Kyl, which would have been almost nonsensical a few years ago. The Village got infected with war fever, goosed by the right, and they are only now coming out of it. And so Obama awkwardly tiptoes around ending torture because there are non-trivial political consequences for doing so. That's a very sad commentary on this country, but it's true.

Once we started having a debate in this country about torture, we made it tacitly acceptable. That was the original sin.

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Carnage Breeds Carnage

Despite the UN call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, the airstrikes and rocket attacks continued this week. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has now urged a cease-fire and called for an international force in Gaza, with Palestinians manning the border.

Israel would be right to accept this. They are in a war they cannot win, without a real political strategy for victory, either:

I spent the morning at a lecture organized by GWU's outstanding Homeland Security Policy Institute's Ambassador's Roundtable Series featuring Israel's Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor. It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals. Indeed, he at times seemed to offer this absence of strategy as a virtue, as evidence that the war had been forced upon Israel rather than chosen: "we have no grand political scheme... we were forced to defend ourselves to provide better security, period." With current estimates of 550 Palestinians dead and 2500 wounded, and the region in turmoil, the absence of strategy is not a virtue.

That's a stunning admission. They are dropping bombs and creating hundreds of martyrs in the hope that... what, that their families will not be angered enough to fight back? And we wonder why they hate us. There's this defensive argument that Israel couldn't stand by in the face of the rocket attacks. That only makes sense if you don't recognize that the attacks have INCREASED since the bombs began to fall. And without a plan to dismantle Hamas, the group will declare victory and grow more radicalized.

Of course, Israel cannot say publicly that their war is a domestic political matter, one that sadly, is working. But it's most certainly not working in the court of public opinion. Even in the U.S., as Matt Yglesias notes, there has been a much more evenhanded effort of the complex situation in the media. You can actually find a wide perspective on the conflict, from the aforementioned Time cover and this WaPo op-ed, musing about the efficacy of the action from a strategic sense, to a harsher tone in John Mearsheimer in Newsweek to these New York Times op-eds and this from Jimmy Carter and this from Juan Cole. And then there's this incredibly insightful story in the new Foreign Policy blog, again from Marc Lynch, that really makes clear how epic a mistake this attack has been:

Ayman al-Zawahiri has finally weighed in on behalf of al-Qaeda over the Gaza crisis, calling it part of the West's war on Islam and calling on Muslims everywhere to attack Western and Israeli targets. He sounds about as happy as I can remember hearing him of late. He probably can't believe his luck.

Israel's assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda. If Hamas "wins", then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies (Zawahiri mentions Mubarak and the Saudis in this tape, but not the Jordanians) and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas "loses", al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel's hands or losing control of a government that they have consistently decried as illegitimate and misguided. Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration -- potentially severely blunting the challenge which al-Qaeda clearly felt after the election (hence Zawahiri's attempt to pre-emptively discredit Obama by declaring the attack Obama's "gift" to Muslims).

The way this crisis is playing out shows the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated "global terrorist front". The Muslim Brotherhood, from whence Hamas evolved twenty years ago, is no friend of the United States or Israel but is nevertheless one of al-Qaeda's fiercest rivals. Zawahiri himself penned one of the most famous anti-Brotherhood tracts, Bitter Harvest. Over the last few years, the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda's salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As ‘Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda's key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the "Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood]." [...]

From al-Qaeda's perspective, therefore, Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions. As in past crises, Islamists of all stripes are outbidding each other, competing to "lead" the popular outrage, while "moderates" are silent or jumping on the bandwagon. Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage (and, from what anyone can tell, ignoring stations that don't offer similar coverage), the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments. That's the kind of world al-Qaeda likes to see.

Nothing makes America and Israel more safe than a more radicalized world that is more receptive to violent extremism. While Jonathan Singer disputes this reading of the Zawahiri message, it's indisputable that the extreme violence Israel has unleashed does not breed compliance, but anger.

Sadly, this broader perspective has not extended to the political elite, who competed with one another to create the more unblinkingly pro-Israel resolution in Congress. While more House members rejected the resolution this time than the pro-Israel resolution during the Lebanon war in 2006, there is still a one-sided debate in Washington when it comes to these matters. There were rumblings that the incoming Administration is prepared to negotiate with Hamas, but the reality of that is probably much less than meets the eye. I think we're finally having a broader conversation in this country when it comes to Israel, with those advocating for peace through intelligence at least publicly vocal, but it's going to take a while to narrow the gap between that conversation and the one inside the Beltway.

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Dead Again

Looks like the worst job in the world continues to be number 3 at Al Qaeda.

Two senior Al Qaeda operatives were killed in a CIA missile strike on New Year's Day in Pakistan, including a suspect in the bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel in September, a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said Thursday.

The two operatives were also suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa for which they had been indicted in the United States, the official said.

Kidding aside, while I don't feel that we can kill our way to victory in the "war on terror," it's significant that we are able to navigate the Waziristan area and have success in finding al Qaeda remnants. But there is also a collateral problem with this, and that is the civilian casualties of Pakistanis and Afghanis that result from this barrage of air strikes, which feeds resentment and contributes to extremism. There needs to be a better regional strategy focused on international cooperation and local law enforcement rather than just a decapitation strategy. This counter-terrorism commitment between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a good start.

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How Democracy Ought To Work

So Barack Obama put out a recovery plan. A lot of politicians and economists took issue with various parts of it. Paul Krugman thought that the urgency of Obama's language didn't match the relative weakness of the plan. Senators like Kent Conrad and John Kerry and Tom Harkin couldn't abide by the corporate tax cuts and the "trickle-down" nature of what should be a jobs program. Obama said he would listen to anyone who thought they had a better idea on the plan, and sure enough, by Saturday morning, he had agreed to some changes on the tax side.

Democratic congressional officials said that Obama aides came under pressure in closed-door talks to jettison or significantly alter a proposed tax credit for creating jobs.

Further, Democrats sought inclusion of relief for upper middle-class families hit by the alternative minimum tax. The so-called AMT was originally designed to make sure the very wealthy did not escape taxes, but it now hits many more people because of inflation, despite measures by Congress every year to prevent it from reaching tens of millions of middle-income families.

Congressional officials said aides to the president-elect had agreed to increase the $10 billion originally ticketed for energy tax breaks, although the final total remained unclear. Two officials said at least $20 billion would be reserved, but others indicated it could go higher [...]

But congressional Democrats are making it clear they want to put their own stamp on the revival plan, despite the inevitable delays. Some Obama ideas, like a $3,000 job creation tax credit, might get scrapped.

My understanding is that the job creation tax credit would just be too easily gamed. And I'm a little annoyed that the AMT fix is getting shoved in there and not along with a repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. At some point you have to add revenue.

But here's the point. The leader of the party, and the nation, proposes a solution to a big and challenging problem. It's criticized. That leader, instead of arrogantly and angrily denouncing the critics and blustering forward, LISTENS and adapts.

We have no experience with this over the last several years, but it's nice, huh? It's called "leadership."

Of course, some things never change: the leader is still using polling to shape the language on the stimulus (sorry, the RECOVERY). But taking a page out of Frank Luntz' book for liberal purposes isn't going to really sadden me.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Friday Random Ten

I realized that I missed the last couple weeks of this, probably because my iPod wasn't on my person on those Fridays. Got it today.

Catch Hell Blues - The White Stripes
Your Love - Supergrass
Please Accept My Love - B.B. King
It Takes A Thief - Thievery Corporation
Warm Sound - Jill Cunniff
Soothe Yourself - Luscious Jackson
Green Fields - The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Fiesta - Ween
Your Star Will Shine - The Stone Roses
Midnight In A Perfect World - DJ Shadow

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The Future Of TARP

The oversight panel led by Elizabeth Warren released another stinging report on the TARP bailout today, slamming the Treasury Department again for the complete lack of accountability in the program.

The recent refusal of certain private financial institutions to provide any accounting of how they are using taxpayer money undermines public confidence ... For Treasury to advance funds to these institutions without requiring more transparency further erodes the very confidence Treasury seeks to restore.

Among the many details in the report are the degree to which Emperor Paulson made virtually no effort to advocate on behalf of taxpayers and not banks, highlighted by this Bloomberg report:

Henry Paulson may be the most powerful manager of money in the world and he still couldn’t do for taxpayers with the $700 billion bailout of American banks what Warren Buffett did for his shareholders in investing in Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

The Treasury secretary has made 174 purchases of banks’ preferred shares that include certificates to buy stock at a later date. He invested $10 billion in Goldman Sachs in October, twice as much as Buffett did the month before, yet gained warrants worth one-fourth as much as the billionaire, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Goldman Sachs terms were repeated in most of the other bank bailouts.

Paulson said “he had to make it attractive to banks, which is code for ‘I’m going to give money away,’” said Joseph Stiglitz, who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on the economic value of information.

“The worst aspect of this is that they were designed not to do what they were supposed to do,” he said in a telephone interview from Paris Jan. 7. “In many ways, it’s not only a giveaway, but a giveaway that was designed not to work.” [...]

“If Paulson was still an employee of Goldman Sachs and he’d done this deal, he would have been fired,” he said.

It's important to note that whatever comes out of the stimulus package is not the only spending that the government will be employing. There is also the second half of the TARP funds, about $350 billion dollars. George Bush is trying to steal the rest but he's run out of time, and the Congress can basically block him from getting it. The next Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, says that he's overhauling the program (that would make three overhauls since September).

Geithner has been working night and day on the eighth floor of the transition team office in downtown Washington with Lawrence H. Summers and other senior economic advisers to hash out a new approach that would expand the program's aid to municipalities, small businesses, homeowners and other consumers. With lawmakers stewing over how Bush administration officials spent the first $350 billion, Geithner has little chance of winning congressional approval for the second half without retooling the program, the sources added [...]

The group has come to believe the program needs a fresh start after determining the Bush administration succeeded in providing a measure of stability for the financial system but failed to jump-start bank lending or stem foreclosures, three sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made.

Geithner has no choice, without an overhaul he won't get the money. Barney Frank basically called for a revision along similar lines today.

As Josh Marshall notes, this turns TARP into something approaching stimulus - limiting foreclosures will have a tangible effect on the economy and consumer confidence. I'm just happy that we may not be wasting another $350 billion come January 20.

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Look At That, Another Horrible Spill Of An Unregulated Coal Ash Dump!

On the same day that the Senate holds an oversight hearing on the terrible fly ash spill in Tennessee, we have another spill in Alabama.

TVA is investigating a leak from a gypsum pond at its Widows Creek coal-burning power plant in northeastern Alabama, a spokesman said at about 10:45 a.m. Central Time.

The leak, discovered before 6 a.m. has been stopped, according to John Moulton, with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

We've heard that before in these cases. The problem is that it leaked at all, and that it's seemingly nobody's responsibility.

Not to mention leak #3:

Efforts to repair one of a series of dams on the [Ocoee] river released sediment into the rocky channel … a section of the Ocoee River Gorge — a world-renowned location for whitewater sports and site of Olympic competition during the 1996 Atlanta games — was about half-filled with black, foul-smelling muck,

“It’s inexcusable. If that had happened during the summer when the river was full of people that could have been a real disaster.”

Yeah. Could have been. As if it isn't now.

Sen. Boxer called for the EPA to regulate this waste so that Big Coal cannot escape its responsibilities anymore.

For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking at the issue of how to regulate combustion waste. The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated. State efforts are very inconsistent, and as more and more toxic material is removed from coal combustion, it is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established.

I intend to work with the incoming Obama Administration to ensure that the necessary action is taken to protect our public health and the environment.

The disaster in Tennessee proves the point that we cannot avoid the costs associated with managing coal ash, and that it is far better to invest in preventing disasters like this than spending even more to clean them up.

More significantly, Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee, called coal "a dirty business". A Democrat is a Republican who's had millions of gallons of crap tossed into his state's rivers.

No. More. Coal.

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Signing Statement Expiration Dates

We've all been concerned about President Bush's disrespect of the Constitution and the separation of powers, but one interesting sidelight to it all is that, at least on the question of signing statements, the long-term effects are less severe than realized, at least in the specific sense.

Critics say the statements, which went mostly unnoticed [3] until the middle of Bush's second term, usurp Congress' constitutional right to make laws and violate the separation of powers. But hope is just around the corner for the signing statement opponents.

"They will mean nothing" once Bush leaves office, said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and member of an American Bar Association task force that studied, and ultimately condemned [4] (PDF), the practice of using signing statements to reject statutes. Presidents should veto laws they believe are unconstitutional, the task force said.

Though the statements aren't legally binding, they send the message to executive branch agencies that they may ignore certain laws, usually on the contention that they impinge on the president's constitutional authority. Agencies that have adopted such presidential advice as policy could still be affected when President-elect Barack Obama's appointees inherit the "status quo," Saltzburg said.

Neal Sonnett, a Miami lawyer who led the Bar Association task force, suggested that Obama make a general statement withdrawing the Bush signing statements to assure a clean break. But Sonnett and others believe the most conspicuous statements -- and their effects -- will be obvious to the newcomers.

Of course, the problem with signing statements wasn't really that they would settle law, but that they would embolden the executive to follow Bush in determining which parts of a statute to abide by and which to ignore. That the specific damage done washes away is a good thing, but the precedent remains. President-elect Obama would do well to completely repudiate the practice, to at least try and establish a new precedent.

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Out Of His Mind

Earlier today I speculated that the Senate might use the incidence of Rod Blagojevich's impeachment to stiffen their spines on the seating of Roland Burris. That's sure what it looks like:

No one can occupy the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama until the governor of Illinois is removed and a new appointment can be certified, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Friday.

Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, was reacting to the Illinois Supreme Court's ruling denying a motion by Roland Burris that the state's secretary of state certify his appointment to the seat.

They're really sticking to the whole "the Secretary of State didn't sign the piece of paper and we can't go against tradition argument, even though the IL Supreme Court basically called it ridiculous today. But what's unsaid here is that Blago was impeached, and the Senate trial will probably be expedited, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was out on his ass in a couple of weeks. Not to mention the fact that he's being publicly insane and further tainting the appointment by making everyone aware of it.

Okay, fine, Blagojevich is clearly insane. I'm sitting here at my desk, listening to him chatter on in the background about the impeachment vote. And he's going on about how his policies let someone get a liver transplant, and should he really be impeached for that? It's like some bizarre performance art. Now he's quoting Tennyson.

No, really.

As Blagojevich swirls the bowl, Burris' hopes of getting seated do as well. Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that Lt. Gov. Quinn will appoint Burris, the Secretary of State will sign the order and everything will be fine.

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Real-World Consequences Of The California Meltdown

Look around you and you probably know somebody who had been affected by the economic slowdown, particularly here in California. Maybe it's someone you know in the construction industry:

State Controller John Chiang refused to make payments Thursday to contractors for work done on more than three-dozen public-works transportation projects. The action, the first of what are likely to be a series of blocked payments, was prompted by the state's unprecedented budget shortage.

The move was required by the Pooled Money Investment Board, which on Dec. 17 ordered a halt to the payments to projects financed with a mix of voter-approved bond funds pending a resolution of the state's fiscal dilemma [...]

The projects are all being handled by Caltrans, which has objected to cutting off the money to the contracts. Some $33 million and 39 public projects are affected.

(It's hilarious that the Governor objected to this after his own Finance Director voted to shutter all infrastructure projects a few weeks ago. Did he not know that this would be the result? Another Santa Claus Republican.)

Or maybe it's that friend of yours who doesn't have any health care or the ability to pay for treatment, or that other lady you know who works at the hospital:

California hospitals are threatened. With only 1.9 hospital beds per 1,000 population,3 the state’s residents are being placed at risk by the negative impact caused by inadequate Medi-Cal payments and California’s faltering economy. Currently ranked 49th nationally, hospital bed availability is likely to contract further in this environment, diminishing access to health care services even more. As a result of low Medi-Cal payments, the majority of california hospitals have already made cutbacks or anticipate reducing services, including closing subacute units and psychiatric units; eliminating skilled nursing beds and ER beds; reducing cardiology, obstetrics and other clinical services; and laying off staff or reducing pay.

The impact of the economic downturn is evident. Hospitals report a 73 percent increase in consumers having difficulty paying out-of-pocket health care costs, and 33 percent report an increase in ER visits for uninsured
patients. With the growth in unemployment, hospitals are experiencing the effects of more californians without job-based insurance. in fact, hospitals report a 30 percent decrease in volume for elective procedures — one of the few areas that provide hospitals an opportunity for revenue growth. In addition, the capital markets are providing a significant hurdle for many california hospitals. More than 25 percent report the inability to access financing for construction, remodeling, equipment purchases or working capital. This has resulted in 41 percent of hospitals halting construction projects or equipment purchases. This has a significant impact on the state’s economy and jobs.

Or maybe your neighbor has a son or daughter who wants to go to college.

The University of California system may cut the number of in-state first-year students by 2,300, or 6 percent, as the recession squeezes the budget.

The proposal to reduce enrollment for the 2009-2010 school year, as well as a plan to freeze 285 salaries of administrators, will be presented Jan. 14 to the Board of Regents by President Mark Yudof, the Office of the President said today in an e-mailed statement. The system, based in Oakland, has 220,000 students on 10 campuses.

As an aside, health care and education were the only two industries to INCREASE jobs in today's dismal employment report. Here in the Golden State, we are going in the opposite direction.

The failure of leadership over the last decade at all levels of government is now coming due. We are not prepared - nor are we taking seriously enough - the magnitude of this meltdown on the state of California. We are about 3-4 weeks away from the state sending out IOUs. That's functionally bankruptcy, and the trickle down of that will be fast and painful. Everyone in the state will either be affected or know someone close who is.

California's dysfunctional government has finally caught up to itself. The general lack of urgency about this is stunning to me.

Good thing an old-politics hack like John Burton will lead us out of the abyss!

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Ledbetter Passes

I was happy to see Lily Ledbetter become such a rallying cry in the Democratic Party during the campaign season. She got a prime speaking spot at the DNC Convention and was cited multiple times by Barack Obama on the trail. The issue of equal pay for equal work is so elemental to basic fairness and women's rights, and it's great to see the House end the first week of business by strongly passing the measure today. This isn't only a question of fairness, but one that will have an impact on the economy. Americans have seen their wages grow stagnant or shrink even when the economy has grown, and anything that puts pressure to push wages upward can help in a recovery.

Howie Klein has more, including a look at the five House "Democrats" who voted against this bill. I'm sure all the women who voted for them might be surprised to hear that. Howie says the odds look decent for passage in the Senate as well.

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Annals of Bad Headlines

The AP sez Burris Denied by Illinois Supreme Court. What actually happened is that the court ruled that Jesse White, the Secretary of State of Illinois, doesn't have to sign Roland Burris' appointment papers for the US Senate to seat him, under Illinois law. The heart of the ruling does nothing to Burris except make his seating more likely, because it essentially tells the Senate to "stop playing dumb."

This, then, represents the IL Supremes "denying" Burris.

Ah, media.

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Ya Can't Fight City Hall

So much for shrinking the size of the military budget.

President-elect Barack Obama appointed a defense contractor's executive Thursday to become the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, acknowledging that his choice appeared to break with his self-imposed rules to keep lobbyists at arm's length.

William J. Lynn III, Obama's choice for deputy defense secretary, is a former Pentagon official who now is senior vice president for government operations at Raytheon Co. Lynn hasn't been a registered lobbyist since July, meaning he can't personally lobby Congress or the White House. In the first three months of 2008, his lobbying team reported spending $1.15 million to influence issues involving missiles, sensors and radar, advanced technology programs and intelligence funding.

Obama's transition is calling Lynn the "exception" to his long-held policy of discouraging lobbyists who worked in the same field as their appointment from his Administration. But he's not fooling anyone. This is more revolving-door politics.

The military budget is strangling this nation. The US accounts for as much defense spending as the rest of the world combined. And the threats we face are not best countered by large weapons systems anymore.

Doesn't matter. That's why they call it a military-industrial COMPLEX.

It will be difficult for Lynn to avoid defense issues related to Raytheon, said James Thurber, who teaches lobbying at American University.

"I think it's impossible in our system not to have people that have been in the advocacy system," he said. "They're the people who know the issues and have the expertise." The key is for the administration to disclose those connections and avoid financial conflicts, he said.

The key is for everyone to acknowledge the problem - an extreme amount of power handed over to defense contractors. It's just as Eisenhower warned 50 years ago. Stephen Walt writes:

You'd think that this would be the ideal time to rethink our global military strategy and look for some savings in the defense area. I'm not talking radical disarmament, but I don't mean just canceling gold-plated programs like the F-22 or abandoning the chimaera of national missile defense. If America has to tighten its belt, shouldn't that include DOD?

Here's why it won't happen any time soon. As Cindy Williams, former director of the National Security division of the Congressional Budget Office and now a senior research scientist at MIT, points out in an as-yet unpublished paper for the Tobin Project, DOD is insulated from serious cuts by an array of impressive political advantages. First, its budget is more than 50 percent of all federal discretionary spending, and its sheer size gives it a lot of bureaucratic clout. Second, the Pentagon has a large domestic constituency: there are 1.4 million men and women in uniform, 850,000 paid members of the National Guard and Reserve, and 650,000 civilian employees. Forget GM, Ford and Chrysler: the Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the whole country. Now add the companies that provide goods and services for the military. Their employees amount to about 5.2 million jobs, which is a pretty impressive domestic constituency. And don’t forget those 25 million veterans, who are hardly shrinking violets when defense spending is concerned. Finally, a well-financed group of Beltway bandits and Washington think tanks stand ready to question the patriotism of any politician (and especially any Democrat) who tries to put the Pentagon on a diet.

So don't expect the military to take a serious budget hit anytime soon.

Sad, really. That's a sacred cow that is going to take years, even decades, to reverse.

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Making Them Do It On Climate Change

Making Them Do It On Climate Change

by dday

Regarding Digby's musing about kabuki, even if this is a game for the cameras to give Obama space to his left, it doesn't mean that progressives shouldn't rally to Kerry and Conrad and make the argument. In fact, it seems to me that is the whole purpose - to "make Obama do it," as it were, and create a bottom-up movement for a real, liberal stimulus with a focus on job creation. Which progressives ought to do. Because there are certainly counter-vailing forces inside the Obama team (I wouldn't guess that Larry Summers is necessarily in on the game) who have the ear of the President-elect, and so even if this is kabuki it would work better with a grassroots response.

There's another area in which progressives need to speak up and not assume that our betters in Washington have everything covered, and that's on the issue of climate change. It looks as if the House has been reorganizing for the sole purpose to pass meaningful climate legislation, be that a cap and trade or a carbon tax. Henry Waxman deposed John Dingell as hed of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Dingell's coal-state partner in obstruction, Rick Boucher, was hustled out the door as well.

As Kate reported earlier today, new House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is reorganizing the committee, unifying oversight of climate, energy, air quality, and water issues under a single subcommittee: the Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

The Boston Globe just broke the news that Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will chair the new subcommittee.

Right now Markey chairs the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, and reportedly enjoys working on telecom policy. Due to his seniority, he had his choice of subcommittees this session -- which meant he could, if he wanted, take the reins of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee from coal lover and Dingell ally Rick Boucher (D-Va.). That alone would have been, as Joe noted the other day, "almost as big a deal as Waxman defeating Dingell for committee chair."

But now Waxman has consolidated environment and energy jurisdiction in one subcommittee. Gone is the Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, chaired by Gene Green [D-Texas], another Dingell ally [...]

The Energy and Environment Subcommittee has something the Select Committee does not: legislative jurisdiction. It will be the key subcommittee pushing climate/energy legislation through the House.

(Boucher moves to that Telecom and Internet subcommittee, and he's been pretty good on that issue.)

This seems like a very grand setup for bold action to combat climate change, engineered by Waxman and Nancy Pelosi.

Then why is Pelosi telling Energy & Environment News that the House won't be getting around to climate legislation this year? (Sub. reqd. for E&E, so forgive the link to National Review's "Planet Gore" denial site. They think this is a sign that the planet's actually cooling and Democrats are quietly burying the issue. Someone forgot to tell the scientists!)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said today that she has enough votes to pass cap-and-trade legislation aimed at curbing the effects of global warming but would not commit to holding a vote in 2009.

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Pelosi said she has sufficient backing in the Democratic-controlled House to move a cap-and-trade bill, but will not force the issue. "I'm not sure this year, because I don't know if we'll be ready," Pelosi said. "We won't go before we're ready."

Pelosi acknowledged the December deadline looming over U.N. negotiations toward a new international climate change agreement. "We're sensitive to Copenhagen and the rest of that," she said, referring to the Denmark capital that will host the next annual U.N. conference. "And it's a very high priority for me." [...]

Incoming House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) will take the lead in 2009 on a climate cap-and-trade bill. But to date, Waxman has not spelled out his plans for that legislation.

"To be determined," replied Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Pelosi's point person on global warming issues, when asked today about prospects for global warming legislation. . . .

Asked about her expectations for the timing of cap-and-trade legislation, Pelosi replied, "I don't know what the timetable will be. A lot of that will relate to how quickly we get through the recovery, whatever else we're doing, and when the bill will be ready. I don't think it's ready."

I spoke to Frank O'Donnell from Clean Air Watch about this yesterday. He agreed that this seems incongruous, given all the work done to change around committees and put the best people on this issue in charge of it. "But why isn't this a top-line issue?" O'Donnell wondered. "Maybe Pelosi is just being cautious, but the stars seem to be aligned as well as they could be."

Certainly one would think that you don't want to try for major climate legislation in 2010, during the midterm elections. Although, given that green energy initiatives are very popular, and seeing all the Republicans greenwashing themselves during the most recent elections, that could be the calculation. But of course, that wastes another year at a time when more Arctic ice is melting and more greenhouse gases are being spewed into the atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that conference committees and reconciliation bills can extend this process for months.

I'm wondering whether this reluctance to act is due to the Obama team's uncertainty on which way to go, and the conflicts among his top advisers (there's that Larry Summers again).

In the fall of 1997, when the Clinton administration was forming its position for the Kyoto climate treaty talks, Lawrence H. Summers argued that the United States would risk damaging the domestic economy if it set overly ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions.

Lawrence H. Summers, left, and Peter R. Orszag, leaders of the Obama economic team, say a cap-and-trade system should include a “safety valve” against high prices of pollution permits.

Mr. Summers, then the deputy Treasury secretary, said at the time that there was a compelling scientific case for action on global warming but that a too-rapid move against emissions of greenhouse gases risked dire and unknowable economic consequences.

His view prevailed over those of officials arguing for tougher standards, among them Carol M. Browner, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and her mentor, Al Gore, then the vice president.

Today, as the climate-change debate once again heats up, Mr. Summers leads the economic team of the incoming administration, and Ms. Browner has been designated its White House coordinator of energy and climate policy. And Mr. Gore is hovering as an informal adviser to President-elect Barack Obama.

As Mr. Obama seeks to find the right balance between his environmental goals and his plans to revive the economy, he may have to resolve conflicting views among some of his top advisers.

To be sure, Obama has shown a desire to implement an expansive green jobs plan and fold energy issues into the overall recovery package. But there seems like reluctance on setting climate targets. O'Donnell said that he wouldn't doubt that Pelosi was deferring on this. "Barabara Boxer has been quoted saying that she's willing to do something simpler and more bare-bones and let Obama's team fill in the blanks."

Once again, I think this is a case where progressives need to be the squeaky wheel. It makes no sense to constitute an environmental dream team in the House and then slow-walk whatever legislation they can pass. The world cannot wait for American leadership on this, and any delay will just increase the needed targets and cause more pain. The House must act. We have to make them do it.

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There's A Guy Who's DISLIKED

Rod Blagojevich was impeached by the Illinois House today on a vote of 114-1. The case now moves to the State Senate for a trial, where conviction, given the House vote, is probably a certainty.

Everyone who thinks that Blagojevich is some kind of evil genius for getting the Senate to back down and seat Roland Burris needs to explain to me how that helped Blagojevich in any way. As I see it, Burris, even if he gets seated, isn't surviving a Democratic primary, now that he's become something of a laughingstock. And even if he did, the act of appointing certainly didn't endear Blago to Illinois lawmakers, in whose fate he now rests. It didn't save him from impeachment and it won't save him from indictment. There's the theory that this helped him with African-American potential jurors in an upcoming trial, but that's speculative at best. Also, the whole trial could take place in Springfield and not Chicago, which would change that calculus quite a bit.

Blagojevich is delusional and just decided to stick his fellow politicians in the eye one last time. He's no great tactician.

Meanwhile, Burris might have his own issues to deal with, after admitting he talked with the guy known as "Lobbyist #1" in the criminal complaint about a Senate appointment. I would caution those who think his seating is all but done.

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Looking Up For Cram-Down

A breakthrough yesterday between Senate Democrats and, ahem, Citigroup has hopefully ended the deadlock over "cram-down" legislation.

Democratic lawmakers have reached a deal with Citigroup Inc. on a plan to let bankruptcy judges alter home loans in an effort to prevent foreclosures and urged other lenders to follow suit.

The lawmakers aim to attach the plan to President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus legislation, and said Thursday the change in bankruptcy law could ease the foreclosure crisis that has dragged the economy into the worst recession in decades.

The compromise between Citigroup and Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, would be limited to loans made before the bill is signed. Obama has said he backs the concept.

Anything that will help keep people in their homes at this difficult time is a positive. But the fact that politicians have to negotiate with Citigroup, a company that received billions from the TARP program, is more than a little distasteful. Kevin Drum says that actually, the banks are a front.

Most of the reaction to this announcement has been dismay that Congress had to "negotiate" with Citigroup in order to pass this legislation, but it's important to get clear what's actually going on here. The negotiation wasn't really with Citigroup, it was with Senate Republicans, who have almost unanimously opposed this legislation in the past. With Citigroup on board, Durbin and Dodd and Schumer hope that other banks will hop on board too, and once the banks are on board then maybe a few of those legendary "moderate" Republicans will also see the light and do the right thing.

That's maybe worse, however, because it means that one of our two political parties has been wholly bought by banks. Of course, we knew that.

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A 16-Year High

Remarkably, 16 years takes us right back to the end of the term of the last President Bush, right before the last Democratic President. What a coincidence:

With the recession in full swing, the nation’s employers shed 524,000 jobs in December, the government reported Friday, and a rapidly deteriorating economy promised more significant losses in the months ahead. December’s job losses brought the total for 2008 to 2.6 million, spanning a recession that started 12 months ago.

The unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in December from 6.8 percent in November and 5 percent last April, when the recession was four months old and just beginning to bite. More than 11 million Americans are now unemployed, and their growing ranks seem likely to put pressure on President-elect Barack Obama and Congress to act quickly on a stimulus package that mixes tax cuts and public spending.

The 7.2 percent was the highest unemployment rate since January 1993, when the country was still shaking off a jobless recovery from the 1990-91 recession. The loss in total jobs for 2008 was the largest since 1945.

Believe it or not, that 524,000 number was pretty much as expected - it could have been worse.

And unlike January 1993, this isn't going to be the low ebb this time. Even with a massive stimulus, nobody expects job loss to turn around right away, with the unemployment rate expected to climb to 8 or even 9%. Holiday sales were officially in the crapper, and with consumer spending still driving the economy, expect lots and lots of store closings in 2009. That will roil the commercial real estate market, which is on the verge of collapse. In addition to jobs falling, hours worked fell sharply since September, meaning that people are working less.

Barack Obama is stepping into a nightmare.

Maybe we all have to learn something from Pittsburgh.

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Dance, Senators, Dance!

As I said yesterday, there's a good kind of Democratic disunity, the kind where Senators stand up for liberal values and push against more centrist measures. The New York Times covers the tension on those business tax cuts in the stimulus bill today. And Tom Harkin used the words "trickle down."

"There's only one thing we've got to do in this stimulus, and that's create jobs," Harkin told me. "I'm a little concerned by the way Mr. Summers and others are going on this ... it still looks a little more to me like trickle-down."

Likening Barack Obama's economic recovery plan to the failed supply-side excesses of the Reagan and Bush years is a bit of a Cassandra moment. But Harkin didn't back down. "What I'm hearing from Mr. Summers is that they've got a different approach -- tax breaks, and this and that," he said. Harkin warned that, much like the outcome of George Bush's $600 stimulus package last year, recipients of quick tax cuts "are going to be salting it away, not spending it."

When I asked if he felt his concerns were heard during the meeting, he looked to the floor and slowly shook his head. It was almost forlorn.

Chris Bowers looks at this and thinks we need to fight. But Digby thinks it's a dance, noting that the leaders of this effort have been John Kerry and Kent Conrad.

And this actually may be good news. It seems very unlikely to me that Kerry is acting out of school, but is rather playing the role of the liberal stimulus spending obsessive who will (hopefully) balance out the tax cut fetishists in the senate negotiations, giving Obama some space to compromise at least somewhere to the left of The Club For Growth. (Unfortunately, that still leaves us with the Blue Dog deficit hawks, but maybe Rahm has pictures or something.)

It's all just a guess, of course, but I simply don't believe that Kerry and Conrad are out there running at Obama from the left on their own. They just don't have it in them. They are staking out this position for negotiating purposes on his behalf. Obviously, we don't know how far any of them will go to fight for it, but at least the liberal economic argument looks like it will be made.

I see no reason why they aren't both right. Even if this is a game for the cameras to give Obama space to his left, it doesn't mean that progressives shouldn't rally to Kerry and Conrad and make the argument. In fact, it seems to me that is the whole purpose - to "make Obama do it," as it were, and create a bottom-up rally for a real, liberal stimulus with a focus on job creation.

Which progressives ought to do. But that doesn't mean that Larry Summers is necessarily in on the game. It's entirely likely that he just believes in neoliberalism and corporate power, and is making the argument from the other side. We can win this one, but that's not foreordained.

...significantly, the business tax breaks was practically the one proposal that Obama didn't mention in yesterday's speech. That's something I'd love to see quietly dropped.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

CA-32: Field (Mostly) Cleared For Cedillo-Chu Matchup

I have to admit that this is kind of unexpected. Not only did State Sen. Gil Cedillo announce his intention to run for Congress in the seat soon to be vacated by incoming Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, but Gloria Romero, who was widely expected to run for the seat, abruptly decided to bow out, endorsing Cedillo and announcing her intention to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction instead.

Here's a bit from Romero's statement:

I have evaluated the wonderful opportunities before me and have chosen to listen to my heart.

My passion is education. I understand that education is the civil rights issue of our time -- the great equalizer in America . My commitment -- particularly now as the Chair of both the powerful Senate Education Committee and Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee on Education -- is to lead the Senate's effort to transform and hold accountable our state's public education system.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to decline to run for Congress and to pursue my dream of becoming California 's next Superintendent of Public Instruction [...]

I endorse Senator Cedillo and look forward to working with him to continue the "change we can believe in" both in California and Washington in these troubling times.

And here's a bit from Cedillo's:

State senator Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) today confirmed his intention to run for the 32nd congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Hilda Solis, the Obama administration choice for Secretary of Labor.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Latinos and the working people of East Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley. Hilda Solis has been a strong leader on labor and economic issues for the 32nd District. As a candidate I seek to continue that focus, creating a competitive workforce, securing access to affordable healthcare and investment into public safety and transportation,” shared Cedillo.

This changes the calculus of this race a bit. Gloria Romero represented most of this district in the State Senate. Gil Cedillo actually does not. In fact, Judy Chu has represented maybe more of this area than Cedillo has. Chu has already grabbed the endorsements of local Assemblymen Kevin DeLeon and Ed Hernandez. And if more Hispanics join the field, that could certainly chip away at Cedillo's support among low-information voters. One of the Calderon brothers may still jump in. And Dante noted last week that Emanuel Pleitez may run.

This kind of makes this astroturf piece by Paul Hefner, playing down expectations that Chu could win in a divided race and playing up Romero's chances while disclosing midway through that he WORKS for Romero, kind of ridiculous in retrospect. (What's even funnier is the dueling astroturf comment in that piece from Judy Chu's former chief of staff.)

I would be careful with assuming that ethnic support is monolithic. The last special election we saw with an ethnic divide, in CA-37, was decided more because of strong labor support for Laura Richardson than identity politics, though it never stopped Richardson from trying to frame the entire race that way. Chu absolutely can garner support in Latino areas, as much as Cedillo can in Monterey Park. Labor's endorsement is going to mean a lot.

On the merits, I would say that Cedillo would certainly be a strong progressive with a particular interest in immigration policy, and Chu has a good background through the Board of Equalization on taxes and economics. Hopefully we'll have both of them on Calitics in the near future to discuss their candidacies.

(P.S. This HuffPo article about the new Progressive Change Campaign Committee suggests that they might play in CA-32. That ship has pretty much sailed, though if they got on board with Sen. Cedillo it may make some sense.

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Conyers Needs A Better Word Processing Program

I'm not getting why John Conyers is expending the energy to attack Sanjay Gupta, whose role as surgeon general would be peripheral at best. Conyers is defending his single-payer bill which Gupta indirectly but unfairly swiped at in his infamous dust-up with Michael Moore. But I'm not sure if anyone believes that Gupta would influence policy rather than being a public face for it. And Conyers' argument that Gupta lacks the requisite experience to handle the National Health Service Corps seems petty. If you're going to go after Gupta, there are questions of conflict of interest that may be pretty substantial. I'd start there.

Meanwhile, if you do step out and write a Dear Colleague letter of this nature, use the spell-check, would be my advice.

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Scumbag Millionaires

You can be forgiven for wondering why Bernard Madoff would try to steal billions in the first place. He was already rich and well-respected, and none of his investors would have complained, presumably, about losses in the midst of the economic collapse of the past few years. But what's coming out in the past 48 hours, about how Madoff had signed checks totaling $173 million ready to pass off to employees at the time of his arrest (I'm assuming to hold it for him), and how he's been mailing jewelry and watches SINCE his arrest, suggests that he's just one of these "greed is good" thieves who always needed more, no matter his position or standing.

The detail was provided in a court filing Thursday as prosecutors argued that Madoff should have his bail revoked and be sent to jail. They said the checks were further evidence that he wants to keep his assets away from burned investors.

In the filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Litt said Madoff cannot be trusted because he had long engaged in a "scheme that required the defendant to lie routinely to thousands of people and a scheme which has caused extraordinary damage to individuals, families, and institutions all over the world."

The judge will now decide whether Madoff should be sent to jail or remain free on bail in his luxury Upper East Side penthouse.

I would say jail at the very least. And some investors or the US Treasury could use all those assets, too.

As for what to do about the larger problem of financial industry fraud, the SEC is broadening their investigation, and even Republican Congressmen are talking about a "statutory and regulatory structure for the 21st century." I would hope that this doesn't narrow into a solution about how to stop Ponzi schemes. The sickness lies in the lack of regulation throughout the financial services industry. Here's what the President-elect had to say about it, and I think it's largely on point.

Obama: Well, by the time that G-20 meeting takes place, we, I believe, will have presented our approach to financial regulation. I think some international coordination has to be done. But right now, we just have to take care ... (unintelligible) ... and Wall Street has not worked, our regulatory system has not worked the way it's supposed to. So it's going to be a substantial overhaul. We're going to have better enforcement, better oversight, better disclosure, increased transparency. We're going to have to look at this alphabet soup of agencies and figure out how do we get them to work together more effectively. We've got to stop splintering functions in such a way that capital in one form is treated one way and capital in another form is treated another way, because these days in global financial markets, they're all fungible. And there's systemic risks that are possible, whether it's in the form of derivatives or insurance or traditional bank deposits. So we've got to update the whole system to meet the needs of the 21st century. This is an assignment that my team is already beginning to work on and I think that we will have, fairly shortly, a package that we've worked alongside Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, to present to the American people.

This is the perspective we need. The failure of the SEC to recognize the Madoff crime is shameful, especially considering the warning signs were there and investment officers were actually trying to warn them. But the real failure is that the financial industry as an institution was disinclined to blow the whistle.

What’s interesting about the Madoff scandal, in retrospect, is how little interest anyone inside the financial system had in exposing it. It wasn’t just Harry Markopolos who smelled a rat. As Mr. Markopolos explained in his letter, Goldman Sachs was refusing to do business with Mr. Madoff; many others doubted Mr. Madoff’s profits or assumed he was front-running his customers and steered clear of him. Between the lines, Mr. Markopolos hinted that even some of Mr. Madoff’s investors may have suspected that they were the beneficiaries of a scam. After all, it wasn’t all that hard to see that the profits were too good to be true. Some of Mr. Madoff’s investors may have reasoned that the worst that could happen to them, if the authorities put a stop to the front-running, was that a good thing would come to an end.

The Madoff scandal echoes a deeper absence inside our financial system, which has been undermined not merely by bad behavior but by the lack of checks and balances to discourage it. “Greed” doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character as we are lust and envy. The fixable problem isn’t the greed of the few but the misaligned interests of the many.

(More here.)

You can say much the same about credit default swaps, or mortgage-backed securities, or the credit-rating industry, or any of the instruments and institutions that failed the country. In short there was nothing stopping them from maximizing their own interests and insulating themselves, not the economy, from risk. The problem is bad incentives, and they directly stem from free-market fundamentalism without limits or controls. It's a system where cheerleading is encouraged and dissent is verboten. Where the interests of the shareholders are subservient to the interests of the bondholders and the CEOs. And that MUST change. To quote Gordon Brown, one of the few leaders on the global scene during this crisis:

The prime minister said 2008 would be remembered as the year in which "the old era of unbridled free market dogma was finally ushered out". In his traditional new year message, Brown struck a tone of tempered optimism, saying that Britain can this year build a better tomorrow through strategic investments while dealing with the dangerous challenges of today.

He said: "The failure of previous governments in previous global downturns was to succumb to political expediency and to cut back investment across the board, thereby stunting our ability to grow and strangling hope during the upturn. This will not happen on my watch."

Absolutely. 2008 was the year when free market dogma became so toxic it nearly swallowed up the entire financial system and the fortunes of untold millions. Madoff is not an oddity; he's an EXAMPLE. An example of what can never happen again.

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Actual President-Elect Barack Obama

Just as a matter of history, it's fun to watch Barack Obama be officially elected President in the House of Representatives today. It's even more fun to watch Nancy Pelosi interrupt Fourthbranch Cheney to provoke a standing ovation, certainly meant to emphasize that Cheney, Bush and the gang will be out of all of our lives in a couple weeks. Start watching around 3:00:

As someone mentioned to me in an email, there is probably nobody more responsible for the pathetic condition of the country that led to this epic, historic shift in the balance of power in Washington than Dick Cheney himself, so this is doubly sweet, to see him have to carry out his duties as President of the Senate to officially usher in the Obama era. How fitting.

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Obama's Biggest Adversary Has a Camera And A Mike

I watched Obama's speech on the economy this morning, and I thought he laid out the scope of the problem and the consequences of inaction pretty well. He also cited the source of the crisis - "profound irresponsibility" and the final judgment on failed laissez-faire policies. And he's signaled that he's perfectly willing to let the package's total grow as it makes its way through Congress. You can read the whole speech here.

Republicans obviously have their own thoughts on this, and they'll try their best to derail the bill and increase the tax cuts relative to the fiscal spending. Whatever - they know nothing but obstruction. What's got me concerned is the gasbag reaction immediately following Obama's speech. On MSNBC, the first talking head pronounced that this was "the University of Chicago lawyer" Obama, not the soaring rhetoritician of the campaign. Non-Senator Tweety Matthews agreed that economic talk doesn't look good on TV because it's not "visual" enough. And Richard Wolffe, trying to sound knowledgeable, cited some of the specifics Obama offered as stimulus projects - moving to electronic medical records, weatherizing federal buildings - and intoned "it's not going to cost a trillion dollars to get electronic medical records."

Oh dear. This brings me back to a post that Jamison Foser cited this week by Niko Karvounis of the Century Foundation, about how the media's lack of expertise or even interest in policy matters could easily derail progressive initiatives by failing to offer a counter-balance to right-wing lies. Karvounis focuses on this question with respect to health care.

Right now, health care reform is an abstract goal that everyone wants -- excitement and anticipation are high. But as the substantive process of health care reform gets under way, two things will happen: first, ideas will be crafted into policies -- concrete plans of action and complex administrative measures, and second, politicians will become involved in the reform process. Policy can get pretty complicated; so the public will rely on the media to help it navigate the ins and outs of the issue. Once politics begins to shape policy discussions -- that is, once politicians enter the picture -- it's all the more important to keep the focus on policy, because it's at this point that policies have a real chance of being implemented. Americans should know their options.

Unfortunately, reporters aren't health care policy experts. In fact, they rarely ever talk about the issue. In a December report, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, out of 3,513 health news stories in newspapers, on TV and radio, and online between January 2007 and June 2008, health care policy made up less than 1 percent of news stories and just 27.4 percent of health-focused stories. Instead of talking about issues like coverage, prescription-drug care, costs or public programs, the media prefer to report on specific diseases and conditions (cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease) and potential epidemics (contaminated food and water, vaccines, binge drinking). Together, these two topics made up 72.6 percent of health coverage.

This is less than ideal. When Congress begins to talk about health reform in earnest, the important news that will affect all of us will be about policy and institutional changes. The media need to be good at covering this stuff -- yet as the Kaiser report shows, newscasters, reporters and editors have very little experience (or interest) in discussing such issues. Worse, history shows that when health care reform efforts are actually under way, the media ignore policy in favor of more sensational stories.

During President Bill Clinton's efforts at health care reform in the 1990s, for example, media reports disproportionately focused on politics rather than policy. In their 1998 book Politics, Power, and Policymaking: The Case of Health Care Reform in the 1990s, Missouri State University professors Mark Rushefsky and Kant Patel found that that in 1993 and 1994 -- the height of public debate over Clinton's plan -- the New York Times reported just 257 stories about policy considerations (proposed reforms and solutions, analyses of options) and a whopping 549 on politics (personalities, disagreement, partisanship). When the nation's health care system was at stake, spats received more coverage than substance.

It's very troubling and can be easily extrapolated to this stimulus package. The media will cover it as a wrestling match, with the twists and turns being entirely filtered through the lens of surface politics. The right will send its passel of spinners to talk about "pork-barrel spending" and "unnecessary" art museums and bike paths being built with the taxpayer's money, and the chattering class will glory to their front-row seat at the prizefight. But the truths and the falsehoods never get sorted out. That goes double for health care, where a host of right-wing myths crop up in almost any media report about the issue.

Karvounis is hopeful - more than he should be IMO - that the media can talk intelligently about these issues. I do think that the public has more access to intelligent analysis about the merits of policy, but that's nowhere to be found among mass media. And ultimately, that's still where most people get their news and where most editors and executives take their cues on what to report. This is an extremely important point:

But it's important that the media rise to the occasion. As Rushefsky and Patel put it, "the mass media may not tell us what to think, but they are very successful in telling us what to think about." News helps us figure out what's important and what's at stake. A dearth of good policy stories will mean that the public isn't understanding the challenges, trade-offs, compromises, etc., that really shape health care. The public will misunderstand the terms of the debate as purely a clash of parties and personality -- as a question of whether "ObamaCare" will succeed -- instead of story about structural changes and policy choices that will affect all of us. We shouldn't focus on how much we like or dislike the politicians involved in health care reform; the focus should be on the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals.

Traditional media has very set narratives for how they view policy fights, and they believe the public wants to view those fights along those lines. In the brawl, reality is subsumed in favor of the he-said/she-said approach. It's going to take a supreme communicator to break through that very ingrained structure. But it'll take more than that. The rot in our traditional media is very widespread.

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Word Is Bond

Reducing the number of Americans comfortable with the nickname "Kit" in the United States Senate, Kit Bond is bailing out.

Republican Sen. Kit Bond announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election in 2010, saying he wants to go out "at the top of my game" and setting the stage for what one expert said could be a "land rush" for the seat.

Bond, 69, made the announcement at the state Capitol, shortly after Missouri lawmakers convened.

"Public service has been a blessing and a labor of love for me ... but I have decided that my Senate career will end after this, my fourth term," he said.

That immediately becomes a top target for Democrats in 2010. McCain actually pulled out Missouri slightly, so it's still a right-down-the-middle purple seat. However, at the statewide level, Democrats have prevailed in many recent elections, including Governor. If Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, with the lineage of state royalty and progressive policy chops, decides to run, she would certainly have a very good chance of winning. I met Robin at the DNC this year, and would be interested to see if she wants to run. There are plenty of Republicans who would angle for this seat as well.

Jonathan Singer has more at MyDD here and here.

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Good Opposition

I do worry that Democrats in Congress relish nothing more than to shiv the incoming Democratic President, and that will stunt progress as each massive ego tries to get the most they can out of every bill. However, I don't want a situation where the Congress eagerly reads off the talking points of their party's President and enacts whatever he wants. The separation of powers is crucial to democracy. And when the Congress is weighing in on behalf of getting rid of those badly conceived tax cuts in the proposed stimulus package, I'm not going to argue at all.

Both Democrats and Republicans have questioned a provision that would provide a $3,000 tax credit to companies for every job created and, possibly, for every job spared. They contend that the idea would be ripe for abuse and difficult to administer.

Lawmakers are also skeptical about a measure that would allow companies to deduct large portions of recent losses. The proposal would benefit companies that have been hit hardest by the recession, including in the banking and real estate sectors, but experts worry that costs could soar because so many would be eligible [...]

"It is tough to see how a company that is seeing its sales slaughtered in today's recession is going to hire just because it gets a few thousand dollars per new worker from the government," Howard Gleckman wrote on the TaxVox blog for the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. "Profitable firms would merely take the credit for bringing on workers they were already planning on hiring."

Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody's, said the credit "sounds good" but added, "It's going to be hard to design something" that proves effective and resistant to abuse.

This AP story has both Kent Conrad and John Kerry weighing in on how unwise it would be to include corporate giveaways in the stimulus.

They were especially critical of a proposed $3,000 tax credit for companies that hire or retrain workers.

"If I'm a business person, it's unlikely if you give me a several-thousand-dollar credit that I'm going to hire people if I can't sell the products they're producing," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the committee.

"That to me is just misdirected," Conrad said.

Sen John Kerry, D-Mass., said, "I'd rather spend the money on the infrastructure, on direct investment, on energy conversion, on other kinds of things that much more directly, much more rapidly and much more certainly create a real job."

I'm happy to see a "Democrats in disarray" meme on this count. It provokes real debate about the efficacy of corporate tax cuts to meet the current challenge. That's a debate we should be having, one that Democrats in the past have shied away from. I'm glad they're challenging the President-elect on this.

And I'm glad Nancy Pelosi is speaking out about the incredible disappearing repeal of the Bush tax cuts.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she wants to see the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy repealed "as early as possible."

The call for repeal may place Pelosi at odds with President-elect Obama; during the campaign he called for repeal but his aides have since indicated that due to the deteriorating economy, he was leaning towards allowing them to expire.

Asked again after her press conference about the tax cuts, the Speaker said she is "urging repeal."

Good. There is no need to placate Republicans by continuing to allow the very rich to suck the Treasury dry, especially at a time of trillion dollar deficits. There's an urgent need for shared sacrifice and to push Obama to follow through on this campaign promise. That's opposition I can believe in.

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The Restart

California's Governor is "restarting" budget talks today. Of course, "restarting" should read "using the same failed process that cannot possibly be successful." The Governor vetoed the only game in town because he's controlled by strings held by the Chamber of Commerce, who suddenly looked favorably on the virtues of bankrupting the state, and Arnold had to follow. The SacBee ed board puts it more judiciously.

Democrats agreed to a 2 percent cut in welfare grants, and some, but not all, of the environmental exemptions. They also have insisted that the governor first negotiate with unions before attempting to furlough state employees and eliminate some paid holidays.

In an interview and op-ed in The Bee Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg suggested the deal blew up not because of policy differences, but because of political pressure placed on Schwarzenegger. Steinberg says the governor got "cold feet" over the Democrats' plan to raise taxes and fees through a majority vote.

There may be some truth to this. On Tuesday, the California Chamber of Commerce issued a statement urging the governor to veto the Democrats' plan, saying it included "unconstitutional and discriminatory tax increases." Since the chamber is one of the governor's few political allies, their stern opposition to increasing taxes by a simple majority vote may well have led Schwarzenegger to backpedal.

The ed board goes on to criticize Democratic leaders for not wanting to cut enough. You know, I thought a mid-year budget deal was designed to fix the budget for the current fiscal year. If we have two-year budget cycles now, it's news to me. I understand the logic of a two-year cycle, but the desire to fill an 18-month gap in January puzzles me and seems designed to further more draconian cuts.

And the continued ignoring of the elephant in the room and casting this as a failure of both sides to compromise is truly absurd. There has been nothing but compromise coming from the Democrats, not just now but for years. "Bipartisanship" has always meant "do whatever Republicans want" to the Very Serious Media. George Skelton today is lamenting the loss of Leon Panetta, as if a guy telling lawmakers they should have more drinks together is the answer to every problem the state faces.

This isn't rocket science. Lawmakers aren't allowed to do their jobs. We elect a representative government along majority votes, and them load them down with rules that prevent majority rule. It doesn't take a genius - or even Leon Panetta! - to fix that. Just an acknowledgement of the problem.

(Incidentally, a judge threw out the lawsuit from the Howard Jarvis crowd attempting to rule the work-around budget unconstitutional, since it was vetoed and therefore not germane. If it comes to such a work-around again, however, expect more lawsuits.)

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Employee Free Choice Rumblings

It's pretty obvious that the Employee Free Choice Act will be among the most contentious of the new session, and therefore the one where I would have expected Democrats to be the most reticent. Maybe it's the reliance on labor in electoral politics, but they're actually being pretty open about it, at the highest levels. Over the weekend, Steny Hoyer corrected the record on Fox News Sunday about the intent of the bill, which is not to "eliminate the secret ballot election" in the workplace but to improve a broken workplace election process.

Hoyer specifically said that the House would pass Employee Free Choice "early" in the next session. Then the Senate released their first ten bills of the year, and the second one certainly sounds like Employee Free Choice would be folded into it.

S.2 -- Middle Class Opportunity Act of 2009. Sound familiar? This is a retread of a bill sponsored by Senator Chuck Schumer in the last Congress that has a variety of tax reform goals; the additional descriptions in this bill include hints at union support ("ensuring workers can exercise their rights to freely choose to form a union without employer interference") and perhaps another go at the Ledbetter law ("removing barriers to fair pay for all workers").

Considering that the House will vote as early as tomorrow on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, this collection of bills may get an early passage as well. And Harry Reid is at least being vocal about the bill.

Reid declined to speculate as to when the controversial, union-backed “card-check” legislation will pass the upper chamber. Yet he said the bill is important to him and Obama.

“The union movement was hurt very, very badly in the Bush administration, and we are going to reverse that.”

Reid said he is interested in working with Republicans on card-check.

“But remember,” Reid said with a smile, “we think we only need two Republican votes.”

I like the commitment to cherry-picking. You're not going to get a bipartisan bill on Employee Free Choice, so you might as well go in knowing the numbers.

This is pretty good news and I hope labor keeps pressuring the Democratic leadership to get this passed. The backlash has kind of fizzled and a swift passage is totally realistic.

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You're Kidding Me

So the entire "Chris Matthews for Senate" boomlet was an act? A ploy to raise his profile and get a better contract from MSNBC? You mean Chris Matthews, author of "Life Is A Campaign," treated his contract like a political negotiation?

Knock me over with a feather.

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Fighting Foreclosures, Not Entitlements

Some progressives are worried about this signal by PEBO (President-elect Barack Obama) that he will tackle entitlement spending at this time where fiscal spending takes precedence over the deficit, but I'm not. It's based on a direct question he was asked at yesterday's press conference, and his answer was pretty boilerplate. Whenever the chattering class hears the word "entitlements" from a powerful politician, they get a thrill up their leg. Doesn't mean anything's going to happen. And Medicare spending needs to go down as a portion of overall health care spending, so if he's just talking about a comprehensive health care policy, that's not really the same thing.

This part later in the interview is interesting:

In an interview later in the day with CNBC and The New York Times, Mr. Obama suggested that he would hold his economic stimulus proposal to the low end of the amounts that economists think will be necessary because it was likely to grow in size as it moved through Congress. He said that he intended to propose a broad overhaul of financial regulation by April, and that he was working with Congressional leaders on his promised plan to limit foreclosures in the wake of the mortgage crisis.

“We’ve got to prevent the continuing deterioration of the housing market,” he said.

That's good news on both fronts, IMO. The numbers he's throwing around are too small for the problem, so I certainly hope they expand. As for the part about the housing market, Kevin Drum sez that housing is still too overpriced and needs to deteriorate further. But in context, I think Obama is talking about foreclosures. And government ought to be creating incentives to limit those because they not only hurt housing prices but they cause major economic upheaval - a foreclosure costs the greater economy something like $250,000. So encouraging work-outs with homeowners to get them in a position to pay would be a step forward. Like the cram-down legislation working its way through the Congress.

Legislation designed to stem foreclosures by allowing bankruptcy judges to erase some mortgage debt will be introduced by Congressional Democrats on Tuesday, and hopes are high that it will pass after a similar plan failed last year [...]

The legislation would change allow bankruptcy judges to modify home loans in the same way that they currently may modify other unsettled obligations, such as credit card debt.

We simply ought to do this. And the fact that Sheila Bair, who has been pushing the most homeowner-friendly, foreclosre-stemming solutions to the housing crisis, will be staying at the FDIC, is more proof that foreclosures are going to be targeted by the incoming Administration. That's a good thing.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Party Like It's 1999

The efforts by the right-wing to derail the nomination of Eric Holder is an object lesson in how they will press every advantage, use every trick, and enlist every argument to deliver defeats to their adversary, simply because they treat politics like the sports section, charting wins and losses. They are very effective in the minority, and with a dreadfully bumbling majority as their opponent, that effectiveness will be magnified.

Watch Arlen Specter paint Holder as a cross between Nixon and Idi Amin:

The senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Holder’s support of the White House’s stance on three contentious issues when he was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration suggested that he was too willing to do the president’s bidding.

“He’s had an outstanding academic and professional record, and I acknowledge that early on,” Mr. Specter said of Mr. Holder in a 25-minute speech on the Senate floor. “But aside from these qualifications on Mr. Holder’s résumé, there is also the issue of character, and sometimes it is more important for the attorney general to have the stature and the courage to say no instead of to say yes.”

Before Tuesday, Mr. Specter had been mildly critical of Mr. Holder’s role in President Bill Clinton’s pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich. He said Tuesday that he would wait until the hearing next week to decide how he would vote, but in the Senate speech he let loose on Mr. Holder, comparing him with Mr. Gonzales in his ability to maintain independence from the president.

Mr. Specter raised questions about Mr. Holder’s role as deputy attorney general on a range of issues that included an investigation into the 1993 federal siege in Waco, Tex., that left David Koresh and about 80 of his Branch Davidian followers dead, and an espionage investigation involving a nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

Neat switch there, huh? It's Holder who is the toady for the new President, as Specter exactly the same criticisms that were launched at Abu Gonzales. What's more, Specter decided to employ the fresh "I was not consulted" criticism, much like Dianne Feinstein used to criticize the selection of Leon Panetta.

Specter said in prepared remarks Tuesday that Obama did not consult with him before choosing Eric Holder Jr. to be attorney general, and he tells Legal Times that Obama also did not consult with him or notify him before announcing four other Justice Department nominees Monday.

“History demonstrates that presidents who seek the advice of members of the Senate prior to submitting a nomination frequently see their nominees confirmed more quickly and with less controversy than those who do not,” Specter (R-Pa.) said. “A recent example is that of President Clinton who consulted with then-Chairman [Orrin] Hatch prior to nominating Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Justice Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court. Both nominees were confirmed with minimal controversy.

“In contrast, on the nomination of Mr. Holder, President-elect Obama chose not to seek my advice or even to give me advance notice in my capacity as Ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which is his prerogative.”

Be prepared to hear that story about Orrin Hatch and Bill Clinton over and over, by the way. The new rule is that all judicial nominees, maybe all nominees, from Obama must get clearance from Republicans before going forward. That's how things work now.

And as long as we're throwing in the Feinstein/Panetta spat, why don't we connect the dots from Holder to Rod Blagojevich?

In a conference call this morning, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) continued the assault, saying that “it’s not going to be a smooth confirmation” for Holder. He evoked Holder’s very tenuous ties to embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as reason to be suspicious of the nominee:

GRASSLEY: It signals that it’s not going to be a smooth confirmation. It doesn’t signal that he may not be confirmed. … [H]e was a counsel or at least Governor Blagojevich had sought to have him involved with something with race tracks in Illinois and casinos, I think. And so we’re trying to get freedom of information on that because we need to know what the relationship is with Governor Blagojevich. And I don’t say that in denigrating in any way except Governor Blagojevich’s recent troubles raises questions with anybody that’s had a relationship with him. … [I]t’s not going to be smooth sailing.

Ironically, just minutes before asserting that “anybody that’s had a relationship” with Blagojevich “raises questions,” Grassley insisted that the Senate must seat Blagojevich-appointed Roland Burris. “He’s got a perfect right to have that seat,” Grassley said.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little Democrats.

It's just a matter of time before all the Justice Department nominees are called out for being insubstantial yes-men with ties to corrupt cronies. And if that doesn't work, conservatives can always play the Terri Schiavo card.

Conservatives are now brushing off the Schiavo case to use it against Thomas Perrelli, President-elect Obama’s pick for the no. 3 spot at the Justice Department. Right-wing websites are outraged at Obama’s association with Perrelli, since he was one of the lawyers who represented Michael Schiavo, who wanted his wife’s feeding tube removed. The Washington Times today reports that these conservatives are now gearing up to fight Perrelli’s nomination:

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, derided Mr. Perrelli’s selection as “just another death-peddler Obama has added to his list of nominees.” She said he’s earned the nickname among pro-lifers of “Piranha Perrelli” for his work on the case.

Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said several end-of-life issues could make their way to the federal level in the next four years and having Mr. Perrelli at the department means pro-life causes would have a tougher time winning those debates.

“If the Justice Department isn’t going to do anything about it, the states, what’s to stop them from cases like Schiavo and even worse cases,” Mr. McClusky said.

Now, not all of these are cause for alarm - if the right wants to relitigate the deeply unpopular Schiavo case, by all means, they should go ahead. And I cannot say with certainty that Holder's actions with respect to Marc Rich or any of these other golden oldies was completely laudatory - I would suspect it was less than that. But that's hardly the point, even for conservatives - in the end, their strategy is to chip away at Obama's legitimacy and the legitimacy of his cabinet appointments, in particular Holder. And even if it doesn't pay off until months or even years into the future, it will be a success. Eric Lotke has a good piece on this today.

Losing the election, lacking ideas about how to fix the Bush-era mess, and unsure how or even whether to attack Obama personally, the conservatives are digging into the old bag of tricks. Karl Rove is the point man. The 1990’s are the time frame.

Conservatives are practiced at this attack. The talking points have long since been written and mastered. Talk radio needs the exercise. The Holder nomination represents a pathetic attempt to relive the glory days of the past [...] the Republicans are complaining about an eight year old pardon. The same republicans who sat around while George Bush turned the Department of Justice into a political tool, including hiring his white house counsel as Attorney General and firing US Attorneys who refused to undertake political prosecutions. Now they’re worried that this well proven civil servant, who earned his stripes on public corruption, might have made a mistake eight years ago.

Maybe he did. Or maybe he didn’t. But the world has moved on since then. We have other things to think about. Don’t fall for the distraction of litigating this long-dead case. Resist even the temptation to point out Bush’s own dubious pardons. Our people need doctors, our bridges need building, and the economy needs fixing. There’s work to do.

Politics here count for more than anything. If the conservatives win, it energizes the base for future battles. If the conservatives lose, they are driven farther into their corner. That’s why Karl Rove chose the battleground here, on fertile Clintonian soil.

This is all about picking a fight, trying to "play offense" instead of defense, all of the little petty nonsense that the media sucks up like cats to milk, precisely what can derail an agenda as irrelevancies take priority. Lotke thinks the answer for progressives and Democrats is to play this like a team. Indeed, Patrick Leahy today threw the Gonzales statement back in the face of every Republican who voted to confirm him. I would just be wary that Democrats don't ignore this. It's really quite toxic.

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