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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Self-Entangling Giant

White House officials are trying to prepare the ground for the fact that they're not going to close Guantanamo on time. I believe Obama boasted in his UN address that he announced the closure of Gitmo.

Senior administration officials told The Associated Press that difficulties in completing the lengthy review of detainee files and resolving thorny legal and logistical questions mean the president's self-imposed January deadline may slip. Obama remains as committed to closing the facility as he was when, as one of his first acts in office, he pledged to shut it down, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to more freely discuss the sensitive issue. They said the White House still was hoping to meet the deadline through a stepped-up effort.

The prison in Cuba was created by former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a landing spot for suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But it has since become a lightning rod of anti-U.S. criticism around the globe. There are approximately 225 detainees still being held at the prison.

People may give a little slack if we're talking months, but of course we won't see the closure of American prisons holding suspects indefinitely. Bagram is still open, and the White House is trying to run some B.S. military commission-like trial to give the illusion habeas rights, which fall far short of that goal. They haven't set the rules for military trials at Guantanamo, or found a location for the prisoners they want to keep, or host countries that will take the ones who can be let go. And they want to use Bush-era theories about the authorization of military force against Al Qaeda giving them authority to use preventive detention and hold suspects without charges. This may be a small victory because they are not setting preventive detention into statutory authority through Congress, but it remains the case that this Administration still wants to hold suspects without charges, is doing so at Bagram and is dragging their feet on closing Guantanamo.

This leads to a more general point: when it comes to uprooting ("changing") the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties -- the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else -- the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do. They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers. With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites -- at a time when none was operating. They trumpeted the President's order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used -- at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn. They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo "inherent power" theories -- while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is. They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo -- while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram. Their "changes" exist solely in theory -- which isn't to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice: i.e., in reality.

Greenwald references this Gary Wills article in forwarding the argument that a country in a near-permanent state of war will always assert these kind of expansive powers for reasons of national security :

That is just one of the hundreds of holdings in the empire created by the National Security State. A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

The White House has replaced the leadership dealing with Guantanamo closure, and maybe they'll regroup and get the place closed in short order. But the permanent national security society, and the political momentum behind it, will resist real transformation in this area.

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Competent Government

Steve Benen has a good report about FEMA working diligently on the ground in Georgia to manage a once in 500 years flood that's ravaged the area. Even Georgia's conservative Senators are praising the emergency management effort. And then there's this nice story from the Veterans Affairs Department:

WASHINGTON - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has authorized checks for up to $3,000 to be given to students who have applied for educational benefits and who have not yet received their government payment. The checks will be distributed to eligible students at VA regional benefits offices across the country starting Oct. 2, 2009.

"Students should be focusing on their studies, not worrying about financial difficulties," Secretary Shinseki said. "Education creates life-expanding opportunities for our Veterans."

Starting Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, students can go to one of VA's 57 regional benefit offices with a photo ID, a course schedule and an eligibility certificate to request advance payment of their housing and book allowance. Because not all these offices are located near students, VA expects to send representatives to schools with large Veteran-student bodies and work with Veteran Service Organizations to help students with transportation needs.

A list of those VA regional offices is available at

We're unused to this kind of government, which manages emergencies effectively and cleans up mistakes with efficiency and speed. This stuff only makes headlines when there's a screw-up, and not when government does its job. But we shouldn't take it for granted, as we saw in the Bush era.

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Movement By Inches On The Green Economy At The G-20

These international conferences rarely produce anything of value beyond some communique. In Pittsburgh at the G-20, leaders of the major nations congratulated themselves on saving the global economy and committed themselves to regulatory reform by 2012, with crackdowns on derivatives and banker pay and capital requirements. All of that's somewhat nebulous, however, and will be determined by national legislatures. I'm more interested in two measures. One is the pledge to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. Again this is easier said than done, but it's good to put the nations of the world on the record, that artificially keeping polluting industries afloat is antithetical to the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

World leaders gathered in Pittsburgh for the Group of 20 summit agreed Friday afternoon to phase out fossil fuel subsidies over time, approving language that does not outline a specific timetable for the phaseout and makes clear that poorer citizens may still receive help in paying their energy bills.

But the wording of the statement, championed by the Obama administration, signals the world's most influential nations are taking an initial, tentative step away from the fossil fuels that power their economies.

"We commit to rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption," the statement said. "As we do that, we recognize the importance of providing those in need with essential energy services, including through the use of targeted cash transfers and other appropriate mechanisms. This reform will not apply to our support for clean energy, renewables and technologies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The other somewhat important announcement was the acknowledgement that the G-20 should be the key international economic conference going forward, rather than the more exclusive Group of 8. This gives emerging nations like China, India and Brazil more say in the global economic future.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Random Ten

Lots of festivals in LA this weekend, but it's about 105 degrees so I'm not inclined to go to any of them. Enjoy the set list:

River Deep, Mountain High - Erasure
Indra - Thievery Corporation
Mr. Brightside - The Killers
The New - Interpol
Last Living Souls - Gorillaz
Until The End Of The World - U2
Blue Christmas - Chris Isaak (it found my Christmas music!)
Skip Divided - Thom Yorke
Soft Serve - Soul Coughing
Innocence - Bjork

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"They aren't friends to consumers."

Harry Reid doesn't appear to be receptive to canceling the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption:

Reid (D-Nev.), who will play a key role crafting the final Senate healthcare overhaul in the next few weeks, is excluding a proposal to repeal a loophole that exempts health insurance companies from federal antitrust laws.

Although the proposal is very popular with Democrats and liberal groups, Reid has concerns that attaching it to the healthcare legislation risks damaging prospects for an effort already facing significant hurdles.

Republicans say Reid is being calculated in a different manner, dangling the standalone bill as a way of intimidating the companies into making concessions on Obama’s broader healthcare objective. But they will have to overcome recent testimony from former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, who backed a broader effort to lift the exemption for the entire industry.

Many Republicans actually support the end of the anti-trust exemption because they believe it would be a vehicle to expand interstate sale of insurance and essentially deregulate the industry, which would not be to the benefit of the consumer. And Reid himself has backed a repeal of the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which gave the industry the exemption, for many years. So if he's brandishing it as a club, he doesn't appear to be doing much of a job of it.

Unfortunately, there are too many people in the halls of Congress willing to give the industry exactly what it wants - a forced market without competition from a public option. Future Congressman John Garamendi, who for eight years was California's Insurance Commissioner, explains why that is a disastrous outcome.

Some in Washington are seriously considering penalizing Americans for being unable to afford care in a marketplace that doesn't control costs. If voters in the 10th Congressional District choose me to be their representative in Congress, let me be clear. I will not vote for any bill that includes the individual mandate unless I am confident that bill offers generous subsidies for Americans struggling to make ends meet and unless that bill includes the public option to provide real competition in the health care marketplace. I regulated the insurance companies for eight years as California's State insurance Commissioner, and I know those companies well enough to know that we can trust them to put profits before people. They aren't friends to consumers.

In California in the first half of this year, according to data provided by the insurance companies to state regulators, PacifiCare denied 39.6 percent of all claims, Cigna 33 percent, Anthem Blue Cross 28 percent and Kaiser 28 percent. 45,000 people died last year in the United States because of a lack of health care coverage. These are not statistics you see in the rest of the industrialized world. Profits ahead of people, greed ahead of the general good is no way to run a health care system.

The Democrats had better figure this one out. If the public gets the sense that their representatives are being run by the insurance companies, they will take their frustrations out in next year's elections.

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If You Want Your Country Back, Start With This

Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to scale back some of the worst abuses of both the Patriot Act and the FISA legislation from last year. Obama Administration officials were noncommital.

At hearings in the House and Senate, the officials repeatedly said they had no position yet on legislation that Democrats have introduced that would tighten standards and oversight of surveillance tools authorized under laws including the USA Patriot Act.

"We are trying to figure out whether the provisions that are suggested there will work for us as is, or perhaps with modifications," David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on whether to renew a trio of Patriot Act powers set to expire Dec. 31.

Those provisions allow investigators to use "roving wiretaps" to monitor suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers; obtain from third parties the business records of national security targets; and track "lone wolf" suspects who may not belong to a terrorist group but may be planning attacks.

I'm surprised they've even gone to the level of noncommital. Executives generally want to retain the power handed to them.

But it took a non-lawyer Senator named Al Franken to explain in plain English why the roving wiretap statute offends the conscience.

Franken, who opened by acknowledging that unlike most of his colleagues in the Senate, he’s not a lawyer, but according to his research “most Americans aren’t lawyers” either, said he’d also done research on the Patriot Act and in particular, the “roving wiretap” provision that allows the FBI to get a warrant to wiretap a an unnamed target and his or her various and changing cell phones, computers and other communication devices.

Noting that he received a copy of the Constitution when he was sworn in as a senator, he proceeded to read it to Kris, emphasizing this part: “no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“That’s pretty explicit language,” noted Franken, asking Kris how the “roving wiretap” provision of the Patriot Act can meet that requirement if it doesn’t require the government to name its target.

Kris looked flustered and mumbled that “this is surreal,” apparently referring to having to respond to Franken’s question. “I would defer to the other branch of government,” he said, referring to the courts, prompting Franken to interject: “I know what that is.”

Yes, it is "surreal" that some politician would dare look to the Founding documents for guidance when determining whether the roving wiretaps statute violates civil liberties. I'm no originalist, but I don't think there's a ton of wiggle room in "the persons or things to be seized."

The truth is that, for all the pretty talk about exigent circumstances and "the war on terror" and the need to conduct investigations in secret, almost all Patriot Act "sneak and peek" requests, where warrants could be obtained to conduct secret searches without telling the subjects, had nothing at all to do with terrorism, but standard-issue federal drug cases. The mission creep here is obvious, and it's true on national security letters and roving wiretaps as well.

I'd be willing to overlook the regular-grade racism and general ugliness of the tea party crowd if they'd actually take a look at these examples of government overreach, and work with civil libertarians on the left to roll them back. The combination could be potent. Of course, the teabaggers aren't libertarians, they're glibertarians, who adored this kind of stuff in the Bush years when they were fighting "terrism."

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Bass On Activism And The Legislature

This Los Angeles magazine interview with Karen Bass is really illuminating about her life and her early activism, which she says started in middle school during the civil rights movement. Bass, a student organizer, antiwar activist and advocate for the poor in South LA, has a deep connection to the grassroots world outside Sacramento. And yet she is boxed in by circumstance and the minority rule in California to do things that directly conflict with her personal interests. This is a fascinating passage:

Why did you start the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment in South L.A.?
In the ’80s, crack cocaine took off as an epidemic, and I became obsessed by it. It was the first time that a drug impacted across class lines in the African American community, and it was also the first time in history a drug trend impacted both genders equally. It was really beginning to reshape the landscape in the inner city. I wanted to find a way to address the drug problem that did not involve massive incarceration—that could get at the root causes—and at the same time I wanted to build an organization that would help create, recruit, and train a next generation of activists. We’ve been around for 19 years.

Does the coalition show up at your office to protest what you’re doing in the legislature?
Absolutely. They’re organizing a protest right now. They are nice enough to call me up and tell me when they’re going to be protesting.

Would you be out there with them if the job didn’t preclude it?
No question. One thing that’s a little funny, if you don’t mind me going off the record—OK, I’ll say it on the record. I would have been protesting, but even when I was making these decisions, I was still in contact with the groups that protest to tell them to continue, because I understand better than ever how important those protests are. So it is quite interesting to be in a position like this.

There's a very good reason why Bass' current position feels unnatural, beyond just the inside v. outside dynamic. It's because she thought she was going from a position of weakness, as an outside activist, to a position of strength, as a legislative leader. However, the truth was the opposite. At least as an activist she was free to advocate and maybe make substantive gains. As a leader in this legislature, she cannot. By rule. Because the minority holds sway.

Anyway, I found it to be a very interesting article.

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The Art Of The Deal

The Senate Finance Committee preserved the White House deal with Big Pharma yesterday, but the vote was extremely close. So much so that I'm not convinced they'll be able to hold that deal on the Senate floor.

During the third day of the committee’s markup of the legislation, the vote on the Medicare amendment introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) provided the most awkward political moment yet for committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — not to mention the White House, which made a deal with drug makers to limit their exposure.

Baucus and Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) joined the panel’s Republicans in beating back the amendment on a 10-13 vote.

Despite Nelson’s failure to attach the language to the committee’s bill, the argument among Democrats is far from over. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised to support the amendment when the bill reaches the Senate floor, Nelson said. The House’s healthcare reform bill includes similar provisions.

Maybe Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh or Mary Landrieu agree with these three - Delaware and New Jersey are big pharma states, but I don't see Ted Kaufman (who's a short-timer and who voted for cramdown in bank-heavy Delaware) or Frank Lautenberg giving in on this. I'm just not seeing 10 votes among Democrats against this policy. Blanche Lincoln voted for this in committee. So did Kent Conrad. It was Bill Nelson's amendment. Who are the conservaDems left?

I wouldn't be surprised if the White House twisted enough arms to get their deal, but I don't see a whip count that gets them there. We'll see.

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P.T. Barnum Laughs - The Birther Infomercial, Stealing From Suckers $30 At A Time

TPM Muckraker has found the next late-night sensation - a birther infomercial entitled "Where Was President Obama Born." It's already received the usual 1:00-in-the-morning airing on at least one local TV station in Texas. The United States Justice Foundation, a Birther front group led by the aptly named Gary Kreep, paid $100 to the CBS affiliate in Lubbock for the privilege of gracing their airwaves. That seems like money well spent for the Birthers for reaching a few thousand eyeballs or so and filling them with wingnut ideology. But that's not the true purpose.

For a $30 contribution, viewers also get a fax sent in their name to the 50 state attorneys general and Attorney General Eric Holder demanding that President Obama produce his real birth certificate.

Getting 4 suckers to fork over $30 for nothing covers their whole expense, and looking at the production values, producing the episode didn't cost much more than $100 either. This is pure conservative hucksterism, where a few people make money off of whipping up fears for no real purpose.

And Bill Keller, the host of the birthermercial, is perfectly positioned to be that huckster - he's a fundamentalist preacher:

The program was produced by, a Web site affiliated with Bill Keller, a fundamentalist Christian minister who also hosts the infomercial.

Imprisoned in the late 1980s after an insider trading conviction, Keller later committed his life to God, attended Liberty University in Virginia, and founded Bill Keller Ministries, according to his bio. was "founded for the sole purpose of having a site on the internet where people can go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for prayer."

This has about as much of a chance at dislodging Barack Obama from office as the Sham-Wow, but both infomercials have the same goal - to get rich off of selling you garbage. Sadly, there are probably enough morons in America to make Gary Kreep and Bill Keller very wealthy men.

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The Moore Standard

I happened to fall into this trap the other day, criticizing Michael Moore for attacking Chris Dodd. But I want you to name one other documentary filmmaker, on the left or right or center, whose films are routinely subjected to fact-checks by major news organizations. If the DC media spent as much time fact-checking everything thrown out as "news" as they did Moore's movies, they would not have enough time to do anything else. And yet this is seen as perfectly normal, as if anyone else gets this kind of scrutiny. Glenn Beck? Sean Hannity? The ACORN dynamic duo? No. Michael Moore needs a point-by-point rebuttal, down to whether the best boy in the credits is really a good boy.

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MoveOn Joins The Fray

The big progressive groups hadn't yet spoken on the question of escalation in Afghanistan - their silence was pronounced. MoveOn finally broke that silence today, appealing to the President to commit to a clear exit strategy. It's a pretty big step.

U.S. policy in Afghanistan has reached a pivotal moment. President Obama is poised to make a critical decision about the Afghanistan war in the next few weeks. And there’s a big debate happening right now about what to do.

Pro-war advocates both inside and outside the administration—including John McCain and Joe Lieberman—are calling for a big escalation. The general in charge of Afghanistan is expected to request tens of thousands more troops, and that may just be the beginning. They’re cranking up the pressure for an immediate surge.

But other powerful voices are urging caution: Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have raised real concerns about the idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan without a clear strategy, as have Democrats in Congress. And a majority of Americans oppose increasing troop levels.

Can you write to the White House and tell them we need a clear exit strategy—not tens of thousands more US troops stuck in a quagmire? You can send the President a message by clicking below:

Some administration officials are arguing for a smaller, nimbler approach with a narrow focus on the threat from al-Qaeda. But cheerleaders for the war refuse to acknowledge that there could be any viable strategy other than more and more troops. So they’re trotting out the same tired old lines and questioning the motives of those who disagree with them.

They figure they can cut off any debate about our ultimate goals in Afghanistan and the region. But President Obama has consistently shown a willingness to stand up for his more thoughtful approach to foreign policy, and that’s what he needs to do here, too.

The hawks are making their position heard. Now, the majority of Americans—those of us who are for as quick and as responsible an end to the war as possible—need to make our voices heard, too.

With Democrats opposing escalation by more than two to one, MoveOn is just reflecting the opinions of their membership. They're a bit late to the debate, but better than ducking it entirely.

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The Real Story On The Lakoff Initiative

You may have seen me live-tweeting the events last night at SEIU Local 721 in LA, where Professor George Lakoff and the folks behind CA Majority Rule met with around 200 activists, union members, elected officials, legislative candidates, representatives from Speaker Bass' office, and more, to talk about the just-released proposed November 2010 initiative on majority rule. If you read through both the live tweets and Dante Atkins' notes on the meeting, I think you get a picture of a potential split inside the California Democratic Party, one that could have major implications for all elections next year.

It should be noted that CDP Vice-Chair Eric Bauman was there to offer support. He gave a typical stump speech and said very plainly that "the reason you're here tonight is the solution" to the problems that grip the state, problems he laid out very carefully and completely. He was honest in saying that any Democrat who opposes this kind of measure will be told that "vertebra are available for installation... I think the chiropractor's lobby can help us with that." He made clear that we don't have a spending problem, "we have a common sense problem," and he pushed everyone in the room to work toward a real solution.

But Professor Lakoff's speech seemed to capture the dynamic between the grassroots and the establishment much better. Lakoff opened by talking about the origins of the initiative that he filed yesterday:

I got into this last spring when Lonnie Hancock invited me to speak to a group of State Senators. And I said, what's the problem, you're the majority! And they said they don't have any power. And they explained the whole 2/3rds rule, and how the leadership has to work with them because we want to lose as little as possible.

And I asked, why aren't you in every assembly district explaining this problem? It's about schools, healthcare, everything, and there's no answer. I went back and said that there's something really wrong. Its name is democracy [...] Which is more Democratic? Majority rule, or minority rule? You knew the answer from the 3rd grade on. Even Republicans know the answer but they don't like to. We know there will be a blowback if we try to change things, but the hardest blowback is coming from our side. The reason that Loni Hancock invited me was that there was a poll done by a progressive organization, and it asked the wrong question.

This is my business. Studying language and the framing behind language. If someone presented you with the poll question: would you rather have more taxes and higher services, or fewer taxes and less services. Obviously, it went with the latter. And the legislature concluded that they shouldn't put anything about taxes on the 2010 ballot. Why do they think that? Because they think that polls are objective, and that language just floats out there. They're wrong. Language is not neutral. There's a truth here that that language hides. It's the truth that we don't have Democracy in this state. We have minority rule.

In response, because nobody else would do so, Lakoff's initiative reads: "All Legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by majority vote." It's tweetable and it's fairly simple to understand. It's framed as a democratic action to return the state to democratic rule. And it appeals very much to those interested in preserving democracy.

Which is the consensus opinion inside the Democratic Party. We know this because, back in July, the state party passed a resolution calling for majority rule for budget and revenue. And it didn't pass with contentious debate - it passed unanimously. One of the very few people to speak out against it was the Party Chair, John Burton. But the rank and file supported it utterly.

It was something of a reversal for Burton, who when he was trying to get the votes of those rank and file supported a majority vote position. Now he's seen some polls and decided to take half a bite out of the apple. Lakoff described his exceedingly short meeting with Burton last night.

Burton wouldn't talk to me for more than a minute. He just said that he saw the polls, and it said 55% on budget and nothing on taxes. How many of you were at the state convention? You voted on a resolution about this. How did that resolution come before you? The resolutions committee. And that was the point. We got the resolutions committee to do it and got a standing ovation. The rank and file Democrats know it's the right thing to do and they have to tell their leaders. So how do you change this? You have to have a poll, but you have to have pressure. The major donors have to call Burton and say, if you want any money from me, you get behind this. And he has to hear that from donor after donor and organization after organization. We have to win in our own party first. I think John Burton is a good person, same with Bass and Steinberg. It's the good people that we have to win over first.

Later, a woman from AFSCME asserted that Willie Pelote was willing to give $1 million dollars to a majority vote campaign until Burton called him and told him to forget it.

You can argue about what the most effective approach is to deal with California's budget dysfunction. We've been doing that all week. You could say that leaders must prepare the ground by tying things Californians want to revenue, and tell the story of Republicans thwarting the popular will. You can say that we need to throw out the Constitution and move straight to a convention. But what becomes incredibly clear is that there is a groundswell of support inside the party for a simple move to restore democracy to the state, and if the establishment in Sacramento rejects that, in particular John Burton, the subsequent outrage will have a major impact on grassroots support for all Democratic candidates next year. There's just no question about this. The grassroots already feels disrespected and abused by the leadership. They got Hillary Crosby into a statewide officer position based on just this kind of frustration. They feel that one of the richest economies in the world is run like a third-world country, and they know that they will never change that when procedural rules force Democrats into a defensive crouch, where they see their role as losing as little as possible. This split will grow and branch out into statewide officer races, legislative races, etc. The grassroots workhorses won't be very inclined to work so hard for a Party that disrespects them and fails to act in their stated interests. Not to mention the fact that everyone knows that, while we wait another Friedman Unit until the electorate figures out the problem on their own, people will suffer from budget cuts, people will go bankrupt, and people will die.

The CA Majority Rule team has a multi-pronged strategy. One, they are raising money for this poll, to try and prove that a properly framed set of questions will elicit the desired results. Two, they will put Speaker's Bureaus together in every district in California with people who can talk about majority rule and restoring democracy, complete with real-world examples of the fruit of the state's dysfunction. Three, they will seek to pass endorsements of the one-line majority rule initiative in every Democratic club and county committee in California. There's an executive board meeting coming up in November where this will probably come to a crescendo, too.

The real story of the Lakoff initiative is a story about rank and file Democrats wanting their leaders to follow their will. You can argue about tactics or strategy or approach, but that's what it boils down to. And the party leadership had better take heed.

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Public Option Nears Finance Committee Vote

The public option debate in the Senate Finance Committee was originally scheduled for a vote today, but it was pushed back to Tuesday. While the chief cheerleaders on the committee are not entirely hopeful about its prospects in the committee, they certainly sounded confident about it overall.

"The health care bill that is signed into law by the President will have a good, strong, robust public option," (Chuck) Schumer said.

How that will happen remains an open question. But the Senators assured reporters on the call that we're all going to get a taste of their passion and persuasiveness on this issue at the ongoing Senate Finance Committee hearings on Friday.

"I think it's a great idea," (Jay) Rockefeller said of the public option. "Chuck Schumer thinks it's a great idea. And we're going to be all over it tomorrow." [...]

Schumer said that "a large majority of Democrats are for a public option" -- but that the ratio is higher in the House than the Senate, and higher in the Senate than in the Senate Finance Committee.

"I think we have a real good chance on the Senate floor," he said.

Schumer and Rockefeller have a lot of weapons at their disposal. First off, there's the pure popularity of the measure, which has ticked up in recent weeks, at 65/26 in the latest New York Times poll. This is also true in the case of swing district Democratic seats, who not only express a fundamental desire for health care reform this year, but support a public option and reject a trigger. This is also a crucially important piece from that polling:

It's wrong to think about the public option in isolation from other elements of reform. Forcing an individual mandate without a public option is a clear political loser (34% Favor / 60% Oppose), and only becomes more palatable when a public option is offered in competition with the private sector (50% Favor / 46% Oppose)

And swing district voters have already decided the private sector has failed to keep healthcare affordable, and want a public option now (48%) instead of waiting for a trigger (36%).

A mandate without a public option will be extremely unpopular because people can sense that the idea of a forced market for private insurers is designed in the interests of those insurers, not them. This is really elementary stuff.

I don't know if whether this report about Blue Dogs fading in their opposition to the public option relative to other health care goals is a sign that they're learning from these reports or not. They seem to be more interested in the regional disparities in Medicare reimbursement rates, which is really a payoff, but if those rates were adjusted, opposition to a public option tied to Medicare rates in some fashion would probably fade away. Especially considering that it's the fiscally responsible thing to do, per the CBO.

The original House bill required the public plan to pay providers 5 percent more than Medicare reimbursement rates. But as part of a package of concessions to Blue Dogs, the House Energy and Commerce Committee accepted an amendment that requires the HHS Secretary to negotiate rates with providers. That version of the plan will save only $25 billion.

In total, a public plan based on Medicare rates would save $110 billion over 10 years. That is $20 billion more than earlier estimates, a spokesman for House Speaker Pelosi said.

We'll see if this arsenal of evidence can convince Senators who really just want to protect the status quo, and more important, protect industry profits. We're finally going to see where they stand when the Finance Committee votes. We'll be watching.

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The Entire Argument Between The Parties

Debbie Stabenow and Jon Kyl:

KYL: "I don't need maternity care. So requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive."

STABENOW: "I think your mom probably did."

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Bullet Dodged

Lisa Murkowski's effort to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions at power plants failed yesterday, which is a boon for the public. The EPA is complying with a Supreme Court ruling to regulate carbon, and if Republicans don't like it, they can write their own legislative guidance for how to do so. Even my Senator got this one right:

Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) smacks down Murkowski at great length, saying “we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand on climate change” and if you don’t want the EPA to take action, then the only alternative is cap-and-trade. “Global warming is real…. it’s happening all over the world.” Attacks the “Flat Earth Society” who opposes action.

Murkowski has vowed to bring this back up, but she could also work to pass a real climate bill. The EPA's jurisdiction on setting their own rules is the proverbial gun to the head to force something to get done, and Murkowski may not like it, but her only recourse is to take action.

I don't know what that action will be. Jeff Bingaman is talking about splitting cap and trade from the renewable energy standard. But hopefully we can get something, and failing that, the EPA will be able to carry out its mission.

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An Oopsie On The Republican ACORN Jihad

The Congressional Research Service took a look at the anti-ACORN rider the House passed last week, and pretty much agreed that the bill is an unconstitutional "bill of attainder":

The two main criteria which the courts would likely look to in order to determine whether legislation is a bill of attainder are (1) whether “specific” individuals or entities are affected by the statute, and (2) whether the legislation inflicts a “punishment” on those individuals. Under the instant bills, the fact that ACORN and its affiliates are named in the legislation for differential treatment would appear to meet a per se criteria for specificity.

While the regulatory purpose of ensuring that federal funds are properly spent is a legitimate one, it is not clear that imposing a permanent government-wide ban on contracting with or providing grants to ACORN fits that purpose, at least when the ban is applied to ACORN and its affiliates jointly and severally. In theory, under the House bill, the behavior of a single employee from a single affiliate could affect not only ACORN but all of its 361 affiliates. Thus, there may be issues raised by characterizing this legislation as purely regulatory in nature. While the Supreme Court has noted that the courts will generally defer to Congress as to the regulatory purpose of a statute absent clear proof of punitive intent, there appear to be potential issues raised with attempting to find a rational non-punitive regulatory purpose for this legislation. Thus, it appears that a court may have a sufficient basis to overcome the presumption of constitutionality, and find that it violates the prohibition against bills of attainder.

My guess is that Republicans don't care about the constitutionality of the statute, and that they'll just keep putting the same kind of language into every appropriations bill. That way they can say that they voted to "defund ACORN," and if it comes out their bills are all unconstitutional, they can claim that Democrats are "protecting" the organization from their good-faith efforts to defend the taxpayers from corruption, or something. I don't expect "bill of attainder" to become a household word anytime soon on the right.

The problem for Republicans is that they actually submitted language on the initial anti-ACORN statute that was entirely broad, to circumvent the constitutionality issue, and in the process opened up the Congress to deny funding to any company accused of fraud - namely practically every defense contractor in America. Alan Grayson has been taking the lead on this - C&L had him over for a live chat yesterday.

The bill, H.R. 3221, defunds every organization that has ever filed a fraudulent report with any Federal or State regulatory agency. As it turns out, this includes all 10 of the 10 largest Government contractors. To which I say, hooray. Finally, we take the fraud out of government contracting. Too bad that it was inadvertent.

Hopefully he can get somewhere with that.

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Doesn't Look Like FEAR Unit

During the Bush years we had a lot of loud law enforcement officials making loud statements about breaking up "terror cells" that didn't seem to be very important and fell apart upon the slightest consideration. So far in the Obama Administration we have the opposite - very quiet officials making almost no statements about what appear to be extremely serious threats.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, senior government officials have announced dozens of terrorism cases that on closer examination seemed to diminish as legitimate threats. The accumulating evidence against a Denver airport shuttle driver suggests he may be different, with some investigators calling his case the most serious in years.

Documents filed in Brooklyn against the driver, Najibullah Zazi, contend he bought chemicals needed to build a bomb — hydrogen peroxide, acetone and hydrochloric acid — and in doing so, Mr. Zazi took a critical step made by few other terrorism suspects.

If government allegations are to be believed, Mr. Zazi, a legal immigrant from Afghanistan, had carefully prepared for a terrorist attack. He attended a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, received training in explosives and stored in his laptop computer nine pages of instructions for making bombs from the same kind of chemicals he had bought.

While many important facts remain unknown, those allegations alone would distinguish Mr. Zazi from nearly all the other defendants in United States terrorism cases in recent years.

The FBI claims to have multiple instances of Zazi buying chemicals needed to build a bomb, with surveillance videos and receipts, and in pretty large quantities - this guy probably doesn't need 12 32-ounce bottles of "Ms. K Liquid 40 Volume" hair product. I don't know that hydrogen peroxide bombs equal weapons of mass destruction, but the guy seems to have had the intention of doing harm, and law enforcement figured it out and picked him up.

That's how the system should work. And they're not holding big hair-raising press conferences about it, either. People are doing their jobs.

...a very contrary view on the making of peroxide bombs, and their strength. The science of it doesn't exactly add up. Zazi may have WANTED to blow something up, but that doesn't mean buying a bunch of beauty supply products and mixing them would allow him to do so. More here.

And if there is any good news in this depressing tale it's that it is some evidence that despite the passage of years, al Qaeda has shown little if any talent for improving many of its methods. They're still reliant on idiots who comb drugstores and beauty salons for makeshift ingredients after a beggar's trip/trawl around the Internet.

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Secret Enrichment Facility Discovered In Iran

A day after passing a UN resolution to move toward total nuclear disarmament, Barack Obama joined Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown to disclose the existence of a secret Iranian site used to enrich low-grade uranium. Iran has acknowledged the site, but “The (IAEA) also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility." Obama had this to say:

Appearing before reporters in Pittsburgh, Mr. Obama said that the Iranian nuclear program “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, appearing beside Mr. Obama, said that Iran had a deadline of two months to comply with international demands or face increased sanctions.

“The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said, standing on the other side of Mr. Obama. “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”

It sounds like US intelligence had been monitoring the facility, near the holy city of Qom, for years, but recently had their cover broken, which led Iran to disclose the existence of the plant to the IAEA. Obama said today that "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program," although I'm wondering about the exact meaning of that remark, given the claim that no enriched uranium exists there, which American officials confirm (they say it could be ready by next year).

This comes right before the October 1 meeting between Iran and Western powers, and is sure to add some intensity to them.

This latest disclosure, along with the stolen election and state-sponsored repression of dissent, is turning Iran into a pariah regime, like North Korea.

Iran has the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to learn how to produce enriched uranium to fuel the reactors it is building. But the centrifuges it is using are an open-ended technology, such that if a nation can learn to use them to enrich uranium to 22 percent (enough for reactor fuel), there is no absolute bar to its learning to enrich to the 95 percent required for a nuclear bomb. Iran can therefore only allay suspicions that it actually wants a bomb by allowing thorough (and even surprise) U.N. inspections and by granting greater access to its scientists, engineers and equipment. Iran was caught doing undeclared weapons-related research in 2002, which is forbidden in the NPT, so it is on a kind of probation from the point of view of the West [...]

Iran may be counting on Russia and China to come to its aid. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would be foolish to make that bet. Although Russia's prime minister (and de facto leader), Vladimir Putin, recently spoke out against further sanctions on Iran, President Dmitry Medvedev indicated in a CNN interview on Sunday that Russia's patience is not infinite. He said, "Iran must cooperate with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], this is an absolutely indubitable thing, if it wishes to develop its nuclear dimension, nuclear energy program." It is possible that Russia will be more flexible on the Iran sanctions issue now that President Obama has canceled plans to build missile shield facilities in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, plans to which Moscow had vehemently objected. Likewise, Obama is seeking to blunt Iran's propaganda campaign concerning the nukes of the great powers by pushing for further nuclear disarmament in the U.S. and Russia.

From the standpoint of Obama, who may be on the verge of a reality check on Afghanistan, he cannot vow to end the existence of nuclear weapons in the world and then sit idle as Iran reveals yet another secret facility. The sanctions may only endanger the Iranian people; but so many are fed up with the ruling regime anyway that it could tip the balance.

Juan Cole has a photo essay contrasting Ahmadinejad's UN rhetoric with reality.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Stooge (D-ND)

Sherrod Brown sez that, contra Rahm Emanuel, no Democrat will vote with Republicans on a filibuster to kill the health care bill, even if it includes a public option.

Brown should go have a talk with Kent Conrad (D-ND). Ezra Klein just did, and I don't know how he got through it without banging the telephone against his ear until it hurt. That Conrad displayed an unconscionable ignorance, as well as an arrogant belief in his own falsehoods, would be normal if he were a teabagger attending a town hall. That he's a Democratic United States Senator fills me with nothing so much as fear.

Conrad raised eyebrows this week when he told the Senate Finance Committee that the health care systems of countries like France, Japan and Germany should be models for the United States because they aren't "government-run systems," even though the government intrusion into those systems is far greater than anything this country is contemplating, even with a public option. Conrad got this from a book he read over the weekend, T.R. Reid's "The Healing of America". That's right, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, a leading voice on the Finance Committee and a member of the Gang of Six, who has been working on health care for months if not years, JUST DECIDED to look into how other countries around the world manage their health care systems.

Klein started by asking Conrad what he was talking about with respect to France and Germany:

But that runs over some fairly large variations. In France, for instance, the insurance really is government-run. The vast majority of people are on public insurance, and there's private supplementary insurance atop that. So too with Japan. They're not confined to simply subsidizing the poor.

But it's not government-run. The doctors and hospitals are private. You're right that in France there's more of a government involvement beyond providing money for those who can't afford coverage. There's a regulatory involvement in terms of what's required by the plans. But the plans themselves, the mutuals, are not government.*

You're talking about France here? Not Germany?

Both of them. The intermediaries are not-for-profits. The model is universal. Employers contribute. Reid says we are in part a Bismarck model, where employers contribute. Part which is that Beveridge model, like the Indian Health Service and the Veterans Health Service. We have a national health insurance model with Medicare. And then out-of-pocket for people with no coverage. We have a real mixed system. We really don't have a system. That's kind of what you get down to.

Klein puts an asterisk there, kindly not telling Conrad on the phone that he's totally full of it. Basic insurance in France is provided through a government program called Social Security. The mutuals only deal with supplementary private insurance.

Conrad segues into the "innocent bystander" approach to policymaking, renouncing his status as a US Senator and just marveling at how the universal "we" balk at changing the health care system:

But we decided not to change that much. The real lesson from Reid's book is that we do this badly. If the French came up with a great new medical procedure, we wouldn't say that's just some French procedure. We'd adopt it. But when they come up with a better way to do health care, we dismiss it as French, and inapplicable.

Yeah. We don't want anything to do with it. He talks about that in the book. It's an odd thing.

Sure is! If there were only a US Senator who praised T.R. Reid's book, who could draw a lesson from it about acting boldly and not getting caught up in nonsensical American exceptionalism! Wherever could we find someone?

After some talk about Medicare and the Clinton 1994 plan and the Gang of Six ("We had 61 meetings!"), Klein moves to the public option, and here Conrad reveals his true grievance:

Do you support the public option?



I go back to the T.R. Reid book. I don't think a government-run plan best fits this culture. A plan that's not government-run has the best chance of succeeding in being passed into law.

Second, and this is very important to my thinking, the public option as defined by the committee of jurisdiction in the House, the Ways and Means Committee, is tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement. My state has the second-lowest level of Medicare reimbursement in the country. If my state is tied to that reimbursement, every hospital goes broke.

People say, "Just fix it." I've been on the Finance Committee more than 15 years. I've been trying to fix the unfair aspects of Medicare reimbursement all the time. We run into the House. Membership is determined by population, and the big population states write levels of reimbursement that unfairly treat hospitals in states like mine. My hospitals get one-half as much as urban hospitals to treat the same illnesses.

What about a public plan that can't use Medicare rates?

There are discussions going on about that. Obviously, it would be very important that it would be clear that it's not tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement. Those of us in low-reimbursement states would have our health infrastructure put at risk.

For all of Conrad's talk about "uniquely American systems" and "not fitting the culture," what Conrad wants is a full-on handout for providers in his state. He wants the Medicare reimbursements to go higher for North Dakota. There's probably a point where they get high enough that he can tolerate the government intrusion. He's essentially calling for a bribe.

And mind you, this is the deficit hawk chair of the Budget Committee, whose entire goal in health care reform is to "bend the cost curve." Now, raising reimbursement rates for rural areas would, of course, INCREASE HEALTH CARE COSTS across the system. But Conrad thinks it's terribly unfair to his doctors to get less than urban hospitals to treat the same illnesses. Has anyone asked Conrad about the cost of living in North Dakota as opposed to New York City?

Then, Conrad whines about that damn House of Representatives where "membership is determined by population," as if the majority should be allowed to rule or something!

Conrad, of course, is also protecting his boomer baby idea of co-ops, which he pulled out of thin air after meeting with the CEO of UnitedHealth Group. Blue Cross of North Dakota, which covers 90% of the market in Conrad's home state, would qualify as a non-profit to be a co-op and receive millions in seed money. Again, payouts are the goal here. Klein asks Conrad why the co-ops in the Finance Committee bill are so weak, leading to this incredible exchange:

I was also struck when I read the chairman's mark that the co-op option seemed shackled. It couldn't sell to large employers. It couldn't set payment rates. The co-ops are not public. But they were being prevented from competing with insurers on a level playing field. It seemed like private insurers were being protected from competition.

I think there are things I would like to see that would make certain co-ops be given the full ability to compete that others are.

So you would like to see those restrictions lifted.

I would.

Why are they there?

Because that came out of the Group of Six discussions.

I have no words.

OK, I have a couple. The Group of Six discussions FELL APART, and yet the useless co-op plan, which Conrad admits he does not like, still comes out of the language from those meetings. Why? I'd have to guess that Conrad doesn't care that the co-ops won't work, as long as Blue Cross of North Dakota gets their seed money.


Weep for America.

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Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous Insurance CEOs

Matt Kapp has a great piece on the salary structure in the health industry, including the insurance companies. It's really mind-blowing to see these numbers.

With median annual compensation of more than $12.4 million, C.E.O.’s at the big health-care companies make two-thirds more than their counterparts in finance and are the highest paid of any industry. The health-care industry’s total annual profit has grown to an estimated $200 billion, and it doled out nearly $170 million in campaign contributions in 2007 and 2008. It now spends more than any other industry lobbying the federal government—$3.5 billion over the past decade and a record $263 million in the first six months of this year. That’s six lobbyists and nearly half a million dollars for each member of Congress. It’s been a good year on K Street, too [...]

Gambling investors’ money on exotic securities in pursuit of outsize returns may be a dubious profit model, but what could be worse than the health-insurance industry’s core model: screwing sick people to boost margins. President Obama has taken aim at big health-insurance companies and their “record profits.” While it’s true they’ve managed to more than triple their profits over the last eight years, they’ve still only lifted their average margin to percent, enough to place 87th out of 215 industries. But they shouldn’t be complaining about lackluster profits when they’re paying their C.E.O.’s and executives as extravagantly as they are. Dishing out this much scratch, it’s a wonder they’re making any profits at all: Aetna C.E.O. Ronald Williams has helped purge millions of members from the company’s rolls; his total annual compensation in 2008 was $24,300,112. Angela Braly, who has promised that WellPoint “will not sacrifice profitability,” also saw a raise, to $9,844,212. Cigna’s Edward Hanway saw his pay cut in half and still hauled in $12,236,740, but he was forced to manage a major P.R. crisis after the company initially refused to approve a liver transplant for a 17-year-old girl, which it said was “outside the scope of the plan’s coverage.” She died just hours after Cigna changed its mind and decided it would pay for a new liver after all. Despite a 75 percent pay drop in 2008, cutting him down to a humiliating $3,241,042, UnitedHealth Group’s Stephen Hemsley put on a brave face for Congress, assuring legislators: “Our mission at UnitedHealth Group is to help people live healthier lives.” UnitedHealth has been fined tens of millions of dollars for claims-processing violations (i.e., stiffing patients and doctors). Hemsley’s predecessor, William McGuire, resigned amid a stock-options backdating scandal in 2006. He still walked away with nearly half a billion dollars in stock options. Hemsley surrendered $190 million in options himself, but with $744,232,068 left over, he should be fine.

Even C.E.O.’s at “not-for-profit” insurance companies (like most state Blue Cross and Blue Shields) collect multi-million-dollar compensation packages, even as their companies pay little in the way of taxes. Blue Cross of Massachusetts’s C.E.O., Cleve Killingsworth, got a 26 percent raise in 2008, to $3.5 million, and Blue Cross of North Carolina’s C.E.O., Bob Greczyn, pulled down nearly $4 million after a 19 percent raise. Gail Boudreaux left Blue Cross of Illinois in December 2007 with $15.3 million. The not-for-profits can be just as freewheeling with expense accounts. In early September, a state audit found that Blue Cross of North Dakota used premiums to pay for a $238,000 sales managers’ retreat in the Cayman Islands and a $34,814 retirement party for an executive.

It's just as bad for the CEOs of hospital operators, lab companies and drugmakers. But I want to loop back to the insurance industry. Defenders always latch on to that 3.4% profit margin to cry poor for the insurance industry. That is a meaningless statistic. In the first place, 3.4% on one-sixth of the US economy, approximately all the insurance premium pass-throughs, is a staggering number. In the second, those profit margins do not include these pay packages. Salaries and compensation fall into the category of operating expenses.

These are the same insurance executives who told Congress this week that denial of insurance claims could be fatal.

It's not hard to make the connection. CEOs take home millions upon millions in take-home pay. They maximize profits and expand their pay packages by paying as little in claims as possible. They admit that this denial of care can lead to fatalities. The dots connect themselves.

When WellPoint CEO Angela Braly was questioned on the immoral practice of denying coverage and dropping customers, she lied so blatantly that even Maria Bartiromo had to correct her. Yes, THAT Maria Bartiromo.

HAINES: I believe you just said very cleverly worded 87 cents of every premium dollar goes to the delivery of healthcare. But in fact why don’t we look at your, the amount of payments you make per dollar you take in. It’s more like 80 cents, is it not? You pay 80 cents in benefits for every dollar. [...]

BARTIROMO: According to your 10k, the number is more like 80 or 81 cents.

BRALY: Yeah I’m citing a Pricewaterhouse Coopers study for the industry overall. 87 cents on the dollar is going to healthcare costs, in the industry–

HAINES: Well there you go again, that’s too cleverly worded. Going to healthcare costs? [...]

BRALY: Relative to other margins in the healthcare industry — biotech’s at 18, pharma’s at 16 — you know really we’re a low cost, low margin provider in the healthcare equation.

The excuses are pitiful, and the game is clear. Insurance companies make money off of studiously ignoring your well-being.

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Oh, This Is Going To Be Fun

Last week, Meg Whitman raised some eyebrows when she vowed to suspend implementation of AB 32, California's landmark global-warming law. This drew criticisms from the usual suspects, and also happens to be broadly unpopular in a state which supports action on climate change. It was also a thumb in the eye of the current Governor and practically the only policy on which he can claim a legacy. So Schwarzenegger came out today and said Whitman's making an idle threat that she doesn't mean.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today dismissed a vow by Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman to suspend California's landmark greenhouse gas law if she's elected to succeed him next year as "just rhetoric that is going on among the candidates."

"You will hear all kinds of stories," Schwarzenegger told an audience at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "What will happen in reality and what they will do when they go into office is probably a whole different ballgame, and I think she will probably reconsider what she said.

"I'm sure she does not want to be counted as one of those Republicans that will want to move us back to the Stone Age or something like that," the Republican governor said. "So I would pay no attention to this kind of rhetoric."

Of course, relics from the Stone Age are the target demographic for a Republican primary, so Whitman has to say what she said. And she's not being accused of political pandering by, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which should make for a fun weekend when the two appear together at the GOP convention in Indian Wells starting tomorrow.

Whitman's more pressing problem is that she has virtually no voting record as a private citizen, apparently having not even registered to vote prior to 2002. In an amusing moment of brazenness, Steve Poizner called on her to end her campaign as a result.

Poizner's camp issued a statement in response to the story this morning, attacking the Whitman campaign for "refusing to answer simple questions and deliberately lying to cover up the facts" and calling for the candidate to "step aside" and drop out of the race.

"It's understandable that Meg Whitman is ashamed of this record. But it's unacceptable that she continues to run from the record and deceive voters. Though there is no shred of evidence she ever registered as a Republican before 2007, she insists she did, yet she refuses to provide any evidence. Her arrogant answer: 'Go find it,' " Communications Director Jarrod Agen said in a statement. "In the history of America, no one has been elected governor of a state with Meg Whitman's 25 year history of no-show voting. She is unelectable and has tried to cover her lack of honesty with millions of dollars."

Hysterical. By the way, if you think eMeg's voting record is back, take a look at iCarly's. Quite a team they'll make on the GOP ticket next year...

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The latest winger brouhaha over some school students singing a song praising Obama is, of course, happening in a vacuum. Are we to believe that George W. Bush wasn't revered as a colossus, godlike in stature and deified by the conservative movement. Does nobody remember this?

Or this?

Incidentally, I find all of it creepy (the teacher probably should have laid off). Which is the consistent position. But the degree to which George W. Bush has been written out of the wingnut vocabulary is striking.

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Ending The Scourge Of Nuclear Weapons

One way in which Barack Obama has separated himself from a standard-issue foreign policy hawk, at least in the modern conception, is on the issue of nuclear weapons. The paleo-cons and realists have generally come to the conclusion that there is no purposeful use for nuclear weapons on this planet, and the President agrees with them. Today, he presided over a session of the UN Security Council and got a unanimous agreement from the member nations to a resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Gordon Brown even vowed to reduce his country's nuclear arsenal in conjunction with this pledge. In his remarks, Obama applied his prodigious rhetorical skills to a very good end.

As I said yesterday, this very institution was founded at the dawn of the atomic age, in part because man's capacity to kill had to be contained. And although we averted a nuclear nightmare during the Cold War, we now face proliferation of a scope and complexity that demands new strategies and new approaches. Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.

Once more, the United Nations has a pivotal role to play in preventing this crisis. The historic resolution we just adopted enshrines our shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. And it brings Security Council agreement on a broad framework for action to reduce nuclear dangers as we work toward that goal. It reflects the agenda I outlined in Prague, and builds on a consensus that all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have the responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them.

He's asking for more than just a hand-holding kumbaya. The resolution would commit nations to a lockdown of all loose nuclear materials within four years. It would strengthen the mandate of the IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It of course follows that nations seen as out of compliance with the NPT and the IAEA would have to face sanctions, and Obama got Russia to agree to that standard with respect to Iran. But you really cannot call for an end to nuclear weapons worldwide without calling attention to those countries threatening to defy that. I am unconvinced that Iran belongs in that number, but the pressure of proposed sanctions has led to international talks and moves toward engagement.

I share the President's vision of a world without nuclear weapons. In order for that to become reality, we need to use all necessary tools to capture loose nuclear material, confer legitimacy on the process by drawing down our own stockpiles, and ensure that all proliferation stops. That includes making all parties live up to treaty obligations. This is a worthwhile goal.

"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war. We must never stop until all -- we must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth."

That is our task. That can be our destiny. And we will leave this meeting with a renewed determination to achieve this shared goal. Thank you.

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Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Soldiers

According to Tom Andrews, the McChrystal strategy in Afghanistan would need just under that many to carry out the mission:

Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal's classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

This bombshell was dropped by NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Wednesday:

The numbers are really pretty horrifying. What they say, embedded in this report by McChrystal, is they would need 500,000 troops - boots on the ground - and five years to do the job. No one expects that the Afghan Army could step up to that. Are we gonna put even half that of U.S. troops there, and NATO forces? No way. [Morning Joe, September 23, 2009]

Spencer Ackerman cautions against reading too much into the numbers, saying that they would include Afghan Army and police boots on the ground, which in McChrystal's ultimate vision reaches 400,000. So we're talking about 100,000 coalition troops for five years, which roughly correlates to current levels. However, the Afghan security forces that make up 4/5 of this commitment, which is aspirational and not concrete at the moment, are 90% illiterate, frequently desert their posts and simply cannot be relied upon as a fighting force.

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40 percent of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

In addition, maintaining a 400,000-strong security force would probably take three times the gross national product of the country at a minimum. It's naive to the extreme to assume that the Afghans will live up to the 400,000 end of the bargain, and similarly to assume that McChrystal would not seek reinforcements from American troops should the Afghan security forces falter. Putting the number 400,000 Afghan security forces on a piece of paper and expecting them to deliver in any meaningful way is as silly as expecting that they have a legitimate government to defend.

Which means that US military might and treasure will get dragged in once again to another futile war, with an escalation bringing mostly destruction to Afghanistan instead of development. It is for this reason - and maybe others - that the President may be rethinking such a commitment. Dan Froomkin has a superb post about how the President could actually lead on this issue by changing his mind.

Should Obama actually change his mind about Afghanistan, our elite journalists -- obsessed as they are with how the game is played -- will almost inevitably characterize this as vacillation and declare it a sign of political weakness. But that really misses the point.

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that over the last several months, what's emerged when it comes to Afghan policy is a sort of consensus of the realists -- from across the political spectrum. The consensus: That our national interests in Afghanistan are pretty limited and that the harder we try to change things over there, the more resistance we face; that Afghanistan, after eight years of U.S. occupation, has become a Vietnam-like quagmire where escalation only leads to more escalation, not victory; and that what little we could possibly accomplish there is not worth more American blood [...]

Another important thing that could happen here is that, by fully explaining his decision, Obama could go a long way toward restoring a balanced and rational sense of what it means to "support the troops." Former president George W. Bush and his political henchmen used that phrase as a bludgeon to beat Democrats into submission on any issue even vaguely related to national security -- even when it actually resulted in putting the troops in greater danger. Most notably, Bush insisted that once troops had been committed to Iraq, he bore the responsibility to make sure they had not died in vain -- and that anything short of victory would be a betrayal of those soldiers who had already made the ultimate sacrifice. Democrats were way too terrified to demand a pullout from Iraq, even when they controlled Congress, for fear of being accused of undercutting our brave fighting men and women.

It would be a sign of strength and not weakness to base strategy on the available evidence, and change it when the evidence points in that direction. It may not get you far in the Washington commentariat and foreign policy establishment, where only bombing countries to smithereens and sending in every able-bodied man and woman in America halfway around the world are seen as serious and acceptable options. But it would reflect strength, nonetheless.

The McChrystal troop request should reach the Pentagon within days. So we'll see if the President bends to the will of the neocon-establishment complex, or makes his own assessment. The shitstorm that would ensue if he nixes the counter-insurgency strategy would make the health care town halls look like (actual) tea parties. So Froomkin's take provides a response that will need to be echoed.

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Unions And Health Care

The labor movement has generally been a pretty strong voice for health care reform. That actually makes them an anomaly, because they and the workers they represent already receive, for the most part, quality health care through their collective bargaining contracts. The health care is often so good, in fact, that many unions gave up several wage hikes in order to get it. And now, with provisions in the Baucus bill to tax insurance companies for offering "Cadillac" care, we're starting to see the unions' self-interest come into play. Richard Trumka, the new head of the AFL-CIO, told Ben Smith that he would fight the insurance company tax:

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka seconded a fellow labor leader who applied a barnyard epithet to the Senate Finance Committee's bill and with its proposal to tax some medical benefits.

"Gerry has much wisdom," Trumka said in an interview today, referring to AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who attacked the bill last week. "We don’t think that the way to provide benefits for everybody is to tax people's benefits so they end up losing their benefits."

"We will fight pretty doggedly attempts to tax benefits because we’ve paid for those benefits over the years – we’ve forgone wage increases, pension increases, days off, and everything else to get those medical benefits," he said.

Trumka at least offered an alternative to pay for coverage subsidies and Medicaid expansion - a financial transaction tax. It's a very good idea to tax a minimal amount on every stock transaction - it's a pure tax on wealth, would hit those who make money from selling back and forth a hundred times a day, and would probably lead to limits on computerized flash trading, which should be illegal anyway. But it just makes no sense as a way to pay for health care. I also think Trumka is being a bit disingenuous by saying that taxing insurance companies on high-dollar plans would "tax benefits." It could just as well incentivize insurers to charge less on high-dollar plans. Trumka has a serious argument about the trade-offs of the union movement, but that should be accomplished through negotiation - companies relieved of an enormous health care burden may be happy with a payout.

The employer-based system is no friend to health care and should not be artificially preserved by a giant employer deduction. Baucus' bill offers a backhanded way to get at that deduction, but with nothing to rein that in, health inflation will probably cause every union to give back health benefits anyway. So at some point, we have to start moving America off of employer-based health insurance.

In another development, this Politico article quotes Anna Burger from SEIU saying that she could support a bill without a public option. SEIU and Burger have since refuted that, but that union has always taken a slightly more pragmatic approach. I'm generally tired of hearing "X says he/she could live with a bill without the public option!" stories, so I'll let that one lie. Soon enough people will have to pick a side, anyway.

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Showdown In The House

There's an important meeting today in the House of Representatives, where progressives and Blue Dogs will likely show their cards on health care reform.

The Blue Dog Coalition is engaged in a member-to-member whip operation in the House, beginning with a survey of its 52 lawmakers, to find out where they stand on critical health care issues. The principal focus is the public insurance option, but the canvass also touches on various tax and revenue increase proposals to pay for reform.

For the first time since they formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs have been out-organized by their liberal counterparts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus completed its first survey and began whipping back in the spring. They launched a final whip count last week that will be finished by Wednesday evening.

The whip count builds on an earlier letter that 60 members of the progressive caucus signed, pledging to oppose any health care bill without a "robust public option."

"We're going back to those people and saying, 'Hey, are you still with the letter?'" said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the CPC. "And if there's been slippage, how much? And if we have a committed core, how many?"

Grijalva is asking members to back the public option all the way through the process, not simply on the first vote on the House floor.

The count comes in advance of a critical House Democratic caucus meeting Thursday morning in the Capitol, where leadership will take their own whip count. The fate of the public option in the House will be largely determined by the parallel whip efforts -- and how aggressive each bloc is in pushing for its priorities. In other words, it comes down to which pack wants it more, the Blue Dogs or the progressives.

So far, Grijalva has intimated that he still has the votes, although he hasn't delivered an exact count. Blue Dogs are trying to bait Pelosi by claiming she doesn't have the votes for the bill as currently constructed, but we'll probably know that by tonight. For Pelosi's part, she has a plan to start finalizing the bill after the meeting, with a possible floor debate on the public option. However, she shot down the trigger today as "an excuse for not doing anything."

The Blue Dogs are also whining about not being protected from tough votes, because the mission of public service is to come up with the most bland, inoffensive legislation possible and not to do anything that might make anyone mad. That's the picture of leadership. These ConservaDems either don't understand politics very well or are just being opaque about their true feelings.

Politically vulnerable Democrats say Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders aren’t offering them the protection from tough votes that they did in the last Congress.

Conservative Democrats fear that dozens of members could be swept out of their districts in the midterm election next year, and that fear has been intensifying in recent weeks.

Between a tough vote on a climate change bill that many don’t expect to become law and a leftward push on healthcare legislation, Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) critics within her caucus say she’s left the so-called “majority makers” exposed.

“She keeps trying to push an unpopular package,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a centrist Blue Dog Democrat, referring to healthcare. “I think it’s fair to say they were better at it before.”

Another Blue Dog lawmaker put it more bluntly.

“They’re seriously endangering their majority,” said the Blue Dog, who requested anonymity. “With the increased margin and a [Democratic] president, there seems to be a different feeling.”

What would endanger the majority are two things - no health care bill, or a health care package without a public option, which translates into a health care package that nobody in the country would like. What you would have left is an individual mandate to force people to shell out money to private insurers only, without the price controls to make that insurance affordable, a recipe for a continued skyrocketing of premiums. People interface the health care market primarily through those premiums as long as they remain healthy, and without competition in the insurance market it's going to be hard to dial them downward. There is currently no provision forcing insurers to lower premiums as a function of lowered overall health care delivery system costs. Only competition will provide that.

As I've said, the insistence on the public option is a self-preservation strategy. Rahm Emanuel might want to throw up his hands and pretend that only Congress decides on it, but he may want to get involved. As someone who claims to have brought the Democrats the House and Senate, he should know a thing or two about losing a majority. He could also recall 1994, when he worked in the Clinton White House and pushed NAFTA on the Congress, and watched as conservative Democrats from rural districts, who lost the trust of the people through selling out their jobs, were the first in line to fall from the Gingrichites. Failure to energize the base and provide something tangible for people could produce a similar result.

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Rating For Fun And Profit

Via Ezra Klein, James Surowiecki has a story about the nation's credit ratings agencies - Moody's, S&P, Fitch - who gave toxic waste sterling ratings that encouraged investors to buy them, leading to a collapse of the financial system. You can add to this the fact that the ratings agencies are funded by the banks, who have a compelling interest in having their crap be given triple-A ratings. But Surowiecki argues that government needs to take some of the blame for this as well.

[O]ver the years the government has made the agencies an increasingly important part of the financial system. Rating agencies have been around for a century, and their ratings have been used by regulators since the thirties. But in the seventies the S.E.C. dubbed the three biggest agencies — S. & P., Moody’s, and Fitch — Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, effectively making them official arbiters of financial soundness. The decision had a certain logic: it was supposed to make it easier for investors to know that the money in their pension or money-market funds was going into safe and secure investments. But the new regulations also turned the agencies from opinion-givers into indispensable gatekeepers. If you want to sell a corporate bond, or package a bunch of mortgages together into a security, you pretty much need a rating from one of the agencies. And though the agencies are private companies, their opinions can effectively have the force of law. The ratings often dictate what institutions like banks, insurance companies, and money-market funds can and can’t do: money-market funds can’t have more than five per cent of their assets in low-rated commercial paper, there are limits on the percentage of non-investment-grade assets that banks can own, and so on.

The conventional explanation of what’s wrong with the rating agencies focusses on the fact that most of them are paid by the very people whose financial products they rate. That problem needs to be fixed, and last week the S.E.C. proposed new rules to address conflicts of interest. But there’s a much bigger problem, which is that, even though nearly everyone knows that the agencies are compromised and exert too much influence, the system makes it impossible not to rely on them.

Predictably, despite the ratings agencies' central role in the financial crash, nothing has changed with them, because the government has stamped them with authority and investors need their numbers to carry out deals, pretty much by law.

If government created this monster, they need to play a role in reversing it. In New York, inspectors with the state Insurance Department are considering dropping Moody's from its list of approved ratings agencies. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (who collectively oversee an industry with $3 trillion in rated bonds) has proposed the same for the entire Big Three. And Jerry Brown has issued a subpoena to the Big Three agencies to investigate the ratings they gave to subprime mortgages. But ultimately, while this may keep the ratings agencies in line, you need to eliminate the official imprimatur from government and force the ratings agencies to compete on their own credibility. Further, the regulatory requirements actually force investors to sell downgraded securities quickly, leading to panic selling based on ratings that don't have a lot of backing behind them. That needs to be tweaked as well.

Surowiecki explains why this won't happen:

Oddly, the ratings system, broken as it is, remains attractive to many investors who have been burned by it. For one thing, it provides an easily comprehensible standard: without it, we’d need to come up with new ways of measuring risk. More insidiously, the ratings system provides a ready-made excuse for failure: as long as you’re buying AAA-rated assets, you can say you’re being responsible. After the housing crash, though, we know how illusory those AAA ratings can be. It’s time for investors to face reality: working with a fake safety net is more dangerous than working without any net at all.

I think, given the safety net under the bottoms of the major banks, that they'll take that fake one from the ratings agencies and live with it, thank you.

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