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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

End Of The Line For Blackwater

Shooting and killing 17 innocent people in the middle of a busy square typically does little for corporate PR. In the case of Blackwater, it hasn't totally knocked them out of the security business. But the State Department's advisory panel is belatedly expressing that their contract not be renewed.

A State Department advisory panel is recommending that Blackwater Worldwide be dropped as the main private security contractor for American diplomats in Iraq, The Associated Press has learned.

A senior official familiar with a report commissioned by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the AP on Wednesday that the panel has called for Blackwater's contract not to be renewed when it expires next year. A decision on the recommendation will be left to the Obama administration, which will be in place when the contract comes up for renewal in the spring.

Rice ordered a review of the department's use of private security firms last September after an incident in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad. Five guards have been indicted on manslaughter and other charges stemming from that incident. The company was not implicated.

More specifically, it will likely be left to Hillary Clinton. Now, during the campaign she called for the ban of ALL private contractors, including Blackwater, to provide security for diplomats and State Department employees in Iraq. This is one campaign promise that she can fulfill. The Blackwater PR spin in the piece claims that State relies on private contractors for security because they have more manpower and equipment, and that nobody has more resources than Blackwater. But Clinton didn't call for a selective ban, but the end of ALL private mercenary support for the State Department.

In a growing recession, dropping the $4 billion dollar contract provided to Blackwater and staffing security with State Department personnel seems like a win-win as well.

It's her move.

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CA-32: Who Will Replace Solis?

Let's have a brief respite from the coming California apocalypse to try and figure out which politician will beat a fast retreat out of Sacramento and into DC to replace Hilda Solis in the Congress. There are actually some good progressive possibilities here, which one would hope considering that Solis was such a progressive leader. The CapAlert early line matched with my expectations.

Democratic state Sens. Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero say they're exploring running for the East Los Angeles County congressional seat that's expected to be vacated by Rep. Hilda Solis, reportedly President-elect Barack Obama's pick for labor secretary.

While Cedillo was expressing his interest Thursday to reporters on the floor of the Senate, Romero wandered by and said she was "definitely" looking at jumping into the race.

Told that in addition to Cedillo, the Calderon brothers -- Assemblyman Charles and state Sen. Ron -- could be contenders, Romero declared, "I can beat them all" -- and walked off.

I like the confidence.

Both Cedillo or Romero would be great additions to the House. I would give Romero the edge because it's actually her district - Cedillo serves a contiguous district. Romero would be a rare voice for prison reform in Washington, and while her advocacy proved fruitless in Sacramento, ultimately she will be proven right if we see mass releases in the next few months, and having her on the national stage would be very helpful to the prison reform movement. For Cedillo it's the same, only on immigration reform. I would imagine that both of them would join the House Progressive Caucus.

As long as the Calderons stay out of this seat, I'd be happy.

Other contenders are the sitting Assemblymembers in the district, Ed Hernandez and Mike Eng, as well as state Board of Equalization chair Judy Chu, who in a twist is married to Mike Eng, which would make for an interesting primary. I think Chu is good in her position but I can't say I know much about her on other issues.

The last special Congressional election gave us Laura Richardson. Hopefully we'll do much better with this one.

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Midnight Riders

This is the most unconscionable of Bush's "midnight regulations."

The Bush administration, as expected, announced new protections on Thursday for health care providers who oppose abortion and other medical procedures on religious or moral grounds.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on his department’s Web site.

The rule prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in procedures because of their convictions, and it bars hospitals, clinics, doctors’ office and pharmacies from forcing their employees to assist in programs and activities financed by the department.

This will have profound consequences for women's health. There is nothing here that doesn't bar doctors from refusing to deliver birth control, for example, or the morning-after pill, or even let someone know where those services or family planning services can be provided. As Hilzoy said, this is a lazy person's dream.

This is a wonderful rule for slackers, since it provides a legally protected way to get paid while doing no work at all. Here's the plan:

(1) Get an MD, and a job as a doctor.
(2) Become a Christian Scientist.
(3) Announce your religious objection to participating in any medical procedure, or to supporting such procedures in any way (e.g., by doing the other doctors' paperwork. This refusal would be protected under the rule.)
(4) When your employer protests, explain that your right to refuse to participate in any medical procedure at all is legally protected under this rule.

Voila: white-collar welfare! See how easy?

I guess that makes it the Bartleby rule?

If you're not totally proud of your country right now, I'll give you another reason:

Alone among major Western nations, the United States has refused to sign a declaration presented Thursday at the United Nations calling for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality.

In all, 66 of the U.N.'s 192 member countries signed the nonbinding declaration — which backers called a historic step to push the General Assembly to deal more forthrightly with any-gay discrimination. More than 70 U.N. members outlaw homosexuality, and in several of them homosexual acts can be punished by execution.

Co-sponsored by France and the Netherlands, the declaration was signed by all 27 European Union members, as well as Japan, Australia, Mexico and three dozen other countries. There was broad opposition from Muslim nations, and the United States refused to sign, indicating that some parts of the declaration raised legal questions that needed further review.

It's a good thing we have a new President who would never validate anyone with beliefs like we see here with the conscience rule or criminalizing homosexuality. Oh wait...

(I should note, in the interest of fairness, that the Obama transition team is committed to reversing the provider conscience rule.)

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The Worm Turns

It appears that Sista Souljah is Sista Souljah-ing contemporary hip-hop. This will get her a lot of credibility in Washington.

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Why Invoke?

We're in the phase of the Rick Warren scandal where people dutifully collect all the soundbites of things he's said over the years. And while sometimes this tends to take people out of context, I don't think the media had a problem applying that standard to Jeremiah Wright, so here goes. Warren thinks that gay people are just immature and lack character and if they could only sublimate their desire like, say, a rapist who doesn't assault every woman who walks down the street (which he compares to HIMSELF), or a violent man who doesn't punch everyone he sees, then they could join civil society. As a result, Warren BANS unrepentant gays from membership at his church. And he's apparently sponsored ex-gay "recovery" sessions at Saddleback. And there are probably a dozen other things, but these are the ones that struck me.

Now, the idea that liberals have to accommodate someone like this at the inauguration because we have to be "inclusive," but Rick Warren doesn't need to accommodate a damn thing, is obviously disappointing and maybe shows you where the Obama campaign's head is at. I also understand that this is that thing called politics, and plenty of other execrable fellows are going to be traipsing in and out of Obama's White House, although unlike The Editors, I think you can answer the question of whether this will help Obama with white evangelicals (hell to the no; he got 25% in 2008 after appearing with Warren on stage, offering expanded faith-based initiatives and creating a whole "Matthew 25" movement. This is tribal. It ain't happening).

However, the comment over the last couple days with which I identify the most is clearly from bmaz.

Why is any of this, Warren, Lowery, or any other religious figure, an official part of the inauguration? If a religious aspect is desired for private parties later etc., fine, but why should overt religion be sanctioned as part of the official initiation of a Presidency? No matter how it is configured, it is going to be offensive to many groups inherently; i.e. those whose religions are snubbed, and those such as the LGBT community, for instance in relation to Warren. Probably some groups somewhere will be similarly put off by Joe Lowery; and, of course, the non-believers and/or atheists don't like any of it.

"America" should not have a preacher. If individuals wish to consider religion vis a vis their government, that is most excellent, but it should be and by individual choice only. God is not for a nation to possess, nor claim the mantle of; that is the province of the individuals in the nation to do, or not do, on their own.

Seven percent of the country does not believe in God. They aren't organized or a political force by any means, but they are Americans, and they are certainly not "included" in this civil ceremony inaugurating a President. What's more, 17% of Americans say that religion is "not very important" in their life, and 57% don't attend church weekly. Are they factored into this inclusive inauguration, with its opening invocation and closing benediction? I see absolutely no reason for this to be part of a Constitutional handover of power.

But I'm probably in the minority. However, doesn't that mean that I should be given a platform and that others will have to "agree to disagree" with me?

Meanwhile, the Courage Campaign is proposing a debate between Warren and Reverend Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Todd Beeton has the details:

We can not ignore Rick Warren's fervent support for Proposition 8 or his mobilization of thousands of evangelical Christians to enshrine discrimination into our state constitution.

Harvey Milk did not ignore John Briggs in 1978, when Briggs sought to pass Proposition 6 -- the infamous "Briggs Initiative" that attempted to ban gay and lesbian teachers, and anyone who supported them, from our California's public schools. Milk challenged Briggs to debates across the state.

Sign the petition. Let's have a debate. Maybe they'll even put an atheist on the stage!

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Defining The Problem

Too often Democrats let Republicans define the debate, even during this era of epic conservative decline. In the traditional media, the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act has consistently been about whether or not unions want to "eliminate the right to a secret ballot election" for workers.

Now of course, this isn't true. In fact, even under EFCA, if 30% of the workforce calls for a vote, they get a vote. But this is not the real problem in labor-management relations. That argument is about the implications of EFCA passing. In fact, the current circumstances of labor elections is the problem that needs to be solved by EFCA. I finally found the best and most coherent argument around that at the AFL-CIO site (h/t Ezra). The truth is that the system for labor elections, the vaunted "secret ballot," is broken.

Today, CEOs get contracts that protect their wages and benefits. But some deny their employees the same opportunity. Although U.S. and international laws are supposed to protect workers' freedom to belong to unions, employers routinely harass, intimidate, coerce and even fire workers struggling to gain a union so they can bargain for better lives. And U.S. labor law is powerless to stop them. Employees are on an uneven playing field from the first moment they begin exploring whether they want to form a union, and the will of the majority often is crushed by brutal management tactics.

Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner studied hundreds of organizing campaigns and found that:

Ninety-two percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent require supervisors to attend training sessions on attacking unions; and 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee.

Seventy-five percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, often based on mass psychology and distorting the law.

Half of employers threaten to shut down partially or totally if employees join together in a union.

In 25 percent of organizing campaigns, private-sector employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union.
Even after workers successfully form a union, in one-third of the instances, employers do not negotiate a contract.

If labor elections were legitimate, there wouldn't be the need for legislation. Instead, think of it as your "secret ballot" Presidential election marred by: mandatory pro-McCain training sessions held across the country, mandatory meetings where "Obama is a Muslim" propaganda is foregrounded, threats to take away your job if you vote for Obama, and threats to close your workplace entirely if Obama wins. There is nothing democratic about these one-sided farces characterized by intimidation and harassment. That's why we need a new system for determining whether workers want to collectively bargain, and majority signup is simply the best practice out there.

This week, hundreds of volunteers with SEIU fanned out to McDonald's restaurants across the country and asked them if they were comfortable with their CEO making 770 times what they make, while they oppose common sense steps to join unions for their workers. As a result, the company backed off its opposition!

After more than 500 activists visited nearly 100 McDonald’s locations nation wide to talk with workers and consumers about McDonald’s opposition to Employee Free Choice, the company released a statement saying their reported position against the bill was a “misrepresentation” and that they “try not to take sides in political issues.” [...]

This victory is a great start for our campaign to restore the middle class and protect workers’ rights to speak out for better wages and benefits. Standing together, we can make Employee Free Choice a reality!

The Employee Free Choice Act does not restrict workers' rights, it affirms them. We must make it a reality in 2009.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Random Ten

Spent the afternoon at the office holiday party. It was over at the Lucky Strike bowling alley at Hollywood and Highland. I bowled a 102, which I think put me above the Obama line. Considering that the first frame was a washout, I'm actually moderately proud of myself, as lame as that sounds. Never been a good bowler.

OK, play the music, orchestra!

Love On The Rocks - Neil Diamond (one of my go-to karaoke songs)
Anxiety - Black Eyed Peas
Beautiful Way - Beck
5 Long Years - B.B. King
Ejercicio #16 - Kinky
Miss Teen Wordpower - The New Pornographers
Samba Tranquille - Thievery Corporation
Sour Times - Portishead
Alright - Guided By Voices
Young Pilgrims - The Shins

Bonus Track:
4 - Aphex Twin

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We're Going To Need A Bigger Boat

I appreciate Bob's sentiment that the time is now to fight the Governor and the Yacht Party and bring some sanity into the fiscal process, but my fear is that the time for that was three years ago, when the successful fight against the special election should have been built upon, and at this point, we're already swirling in the bowl.

Let's just get you up to date. All infrastructure projects are currently shut down. Unemployment nudged up to 8.4% in November, the state lost 41,700 jobs last month, and up to 200,000 more jobs are on the chopping block from the public works freeze if it continues. Meanwhile the Governor is ordering up layoffs and furloughs for state workers, so just add those on top of the pile. You're likely to see a 10% cut in state employees, and a 10% reduction in the salaries of those who remain. More job loss means less income tax and probably less sales tax, as well as more need for public assistance.

And that's before a budget which could have further reductions to state employee paychecks, elimination of overtime and meal breaks, etc., is signed. Not to mention the billions more in cuts that the Democrats included in their work-around plan which the Governor threatened to veto. Schools, which were slated for $4 billion in cuts in that budget, have already gotten the jump on the state by cutting back their local budgets. After-school sports, libraries, and new teachers are probably all going to go.

This is a nightmare beyond the ability of many, even myself, to comprehend. It's so big that it'll affect everything, and the idea that a ragtag band of liberals have the power to stop the freight train from coming down the track is precious, but I think wrong. This is the accumulation of 30 years of bad policy and worse government structure, and that's not going to be turned around in the time it needs to be to avoid catastrophe. Even George Skelton, poohbah of all poohbahs, admits that the Yacht Party is so nakedly ideological that they have made the state dysfunctional. This work-around budget is good for the time being, but Schwarzenegger is clearly committed to hijacking that process. It's a large game of chicken that none of us can afford. And as I've noted, even balancing the budget - which the work-around does not do - will not necessarily restart infrastructure spending, and even federal help might not be able to do that.

Changing the constitution with a convention is a nice idea, but not so easy in practice, as we all know.

Talk of calling a constitutional convention has been banging around California for at least the last few decades — maybe since 1851, for all I know — and it's gotten a lot louder recently. Here, however, is the rule for calling a convention:

The Legislature by rollcall vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership of each house concurring, may submit at a general election the question whether to call a convention to revise the Constitution. If the majority vote yes on that question, within 6 months the Legislature shall provide for the convention. Delegates to a constitutional convention shall be voters elected from districts as nearly equal in population as may be practicable.

In plain English: you need a two-thirds vote of the legislature to put an initiative on the ballot and then you have to get it approved by the voters. The problem is that no matter how sweetly liberals might croon about what a convention could do, conservatives all know the truth: the whole point of the thing would be to get rid of our insane two-thirds requirements for passing budgets and raising taxes. Unfortunately, our whole problem is that Republicans control (slightly more than) one-third of the legislature. And if we can't get them to vote for a tax increase in the first place, what are the odds we could get them to vote for a constitutional convention called for the express purpose of making it easier to increase taxes? About zero.

OK, but how about a simple initiative? We could get rid of the two-thirds rule just by collecting signatures and getting a majority vote, right?

Right. And we tried that just a few years ago. Prop 56 was supported by all the usual good government groups and would have reduced the majority needed to pass budget and tax measure from two-thirds to 55%. A bunch of other fluff was added to make it more popular ("rainy day" funds, no pay for legislators if they don't pass a budget, etc.), and in the end..... got whomped 66%-34%. No one was fooled for a second. Everyone knew the whole point was to make it easier to raise taxes, and so it lost in a landslide.

I think a similar proposition to 56 wouldn't crash so hard today, but it would certainly go in as an underdog, because the majority of the state still doesn't understand the consequences of all this failure. It's a "dysfunctional electorate," as K-Drum puts it, as well as a dysfunctional government.

Do we need to fight? Yes. But we need some arms shipments from Washington (metaphorically speaking) before we can do that. A rescue package for the state is desperately needed, and it got a whole lot more so yesterday when the Governor vetoed the work-around.

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Blago Talks

I'll go ahead and call that press conference strange:

In an unwavering statement of innocence, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Friday he will be vindicated of criminal corruption charges and has no intention of letting what he called a "political lynch mob" force him from his job. "I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong," Blagojevich said, speaking for about three minutes in his first official public comments since his arrest last week on federal corruption charges.

The Democrat is accused, among other things, of plotting to sell or trade President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

"I'm not going to quit a job the people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob," Blagojevich said.

This is the kind of statement you would expect from someone facing allegations in a tabloid. But these charges aren't so flimsy. They're all on tape in the office of the US Attorney, in fact. That Blagojevich treated them like they were libelous claims suggests that he doesn't have a firm grasp on the charges or reality.

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Boyz In The LaHood

So the second Republican has been tapped for President-elect Obama's cabinet - former Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary. In past Administrations, the Transportation Secretary hasn't been that powerful a job and has been a dumping ground for the inevitable token member from the opposite party. Heck, even Bush had Democrat Norman Mineta installed there. However, with the focus on infrastructure improvements being central to Obama's economic recovery platform, and with a lot of that going to rail and transit, DOT might be more important this time around. And it's being handed to a Republican. Of course, there's an open question about how involved LaHood would be on those infrastructure issues, rather than the normal work of DOT, a lot of which involves air travel.

The reception has been mixed. Streetsblog is not impressed.

We've been calling around to Congressional staffers, advocates and insiders to get a better sense of what Obama's appointment of Ray LaHood as transportation secretary means for those pushing for sustainable transport, smart growth, livable streets. While no one is giving up hope on the Obama administration a month before the inauguration, the general consensus is pretty clear. As one insider summed it up: "It's a real read-it-and-weep moment."

The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc. is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama's agenda.

"Obama still hasn't made the transportation - land use - climate connection," Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. "It's clear he's thinking about these things in separate categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the transportation secretary was nowhere to be found.

Friends of the Earth is a little more hopeful:

“Congressman LaHood’s challenge is great. He must ensure U.S. transportation policy supports, rather than undercuts, the Obama administration’s goals on energy and climate change. This means he must work closely with Obama’s nominees for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, and with Obama’s new energy and climate czar, Carol Browner.

“While his overall record on energy and environment issues is poor, LaHood has in recent years broken with many in his party to support crucial investments in passenger rail and public transportation, and he is a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus. These are reasons to hope that he may be open to the visionary transportation policy that is needed to move our country forward.

“Friends of the Earth looks forward to working with Congressman LaHood to bring about such a policy.”

I think it's clear that Obama doesn't connect green policy and transportation policy, but it's probably because his green thinking outweighs the thinking on transportation. I don't think LaHood will have much of a power center. He is moderate for a Republican, and he has promoted expanded rail and transit funding in recent years, so I don't think he'll be an obstacle to that either. At some point, however, Streetsblog is right: to truly remake our energy future we need to provide options to alter the way we live - with smart growth, proper land use and livable streets. The era of suburban sprawl cannot continue because our efforts on reining in greenhouse gas emissions will collapse. DOT actually could play a valuable role in setting that policy, but Obama doesn't want to go there. His urban background, however, suggests he understands the importance of it, both for the economy, the environment and quality of life. So we'll see.

...just to round out the cabinet, there's former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as US Trade Representative. I think it was clear with Xavier Becerra's remarks when he turned down the job that Obama didn't really think trade was a first- or second-order priority, and he didn't connect trade to our larger economic problems, so this may be another area where the pick doesn't entirely matter since that policy will be attacked from a different angle.

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Blinding Me With Science

Politico has a piece today on Obama's cabinet being a middle-of-the-roader's dream. I guess that's true, and it's not entirely unexpected. Obama always told us who he was throughout the campaign, despite the hopes of those inclined to spin his cultural uniqueness into obvious progressivism.

But I would argue that this centrism is not uniform throughout the cabinet. In the green and labor spaces, the cabinet does live up to the promise of idealists for the most part. Hilda Solis is a fiery progressive at Labor, and all of the environmental picks are pretty solid. Most of all, we have a President who clearly values science and pays attention to scientific reason. That's a major change from the past eight years. The Presidential Science Advisor is going to be a Harvard physicist, and the head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) will be a marine biologist and MacArthur genius grant recipient.

John P. Holdren, a Harvard physicist best known as a strong proponent of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and a specialist on energy technology policy and nuclear nonproliferation, has been chosen to be Mr. Obama’s science adviser, according to two people close to Dr. Holdren and one person involved in the decision [...] Also, Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University and longtime contact of mine on marine conservation issues and climate, will be nominated by Mr. Obama to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. Holdren has long been pressing for prompt action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and advance research on non-polluting energy sources. He has told me in the past that he consciously eschewed getting involved with the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to maintain an independent view of the science.

This is how Dr. Holdren described his stance to me in 2007: “I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system…. What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe.”

You can add this to Dr. Stephen Chu, the new Energy Secretary, and you have a cadre of scientists who understand the very real dangers for planetary sustainability that come with continued burning of harmful greenhouse gases. We have to reduce the CO2 burden on the planet and come up with a new energy future that doesn't just reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but on fossil fuels entirely. A recent climate study by the American Geophysicist Union makes it clear that an American return to native fuels like coal would be disastrous for the world.

Some commentators have argued that falling reserves of oil and gas will automatically limit CO2's rise.
But at an American Geophysical Union meeting, researchers said reserves of coal dwarfed those of other fuels.

It was even possible oil's demise could trigger an acceleration in emissions through more coal use, they added.

"We can replace oil with liquid fuels derived from coal," said Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California.

"But these liquid fuels emit even more carbon dioxide than oil, so the end of oil can mean an increase in coal and even more carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, and even more rapid onset of dangerous climate change."

In the past, there would be nobody in the highest reaches of government to stop the headlong rush to boost parochial interests by burning coal as somehow a way to mitigate the effects of climate change and get us off oil. But now, we have an Energy Secretary who has called coal a nightmare.

Carbon capture and storage research is still in its early stages, said Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist announced by Obama this week as his nominee to run the U.S. Department of Energy. Real-world projects to pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide might also be rejected unless scientists show it can be done safely, Chu said during an April speech.

"Coal is my worst nightmare," said Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Stanford University professor.

Chu noted that coal is the current "default option" for meeting growing energy needs in the United States, China and India. But coal is also firing continued increases in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, even at a time when scientists say the need to dramatically reduce those emissions is critical.

"We have lots of fossil fuel," Chu said during a talk outlining his views on energy policy. "That's really both good and bad news. We won't run out of energy, but there's enough carbon in the ground to really cook us."

This is a return to SCIENCE driving policy, instead of policymakers driving a truck through science and doing whatever they want. Nothing about that is middle of the road.

...I just want to make it clear that I am not advocating living in a cave, in case you were wondering.

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Disassembling The Middle Class

Well, the President did not opt for the orderly collapse of the auto industry, finally understanding (and articulating) that no consumer would buy a car from a company in bankruptcy. Instead, he extended $17 billion in loans to the Big 3 automakers, in exchange for major concessions and restructuring.

The deal would extend $13.4 billion in loans to General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC in December and January, with another $4 billion likely available in February. It also would provide the government with non-voting warrants, although the exact amount was unclear immediately. Ford Motor Co. has said it doesn't need short-term assistance.

The deal is contingent on the companies' showing that they are financially viable by March 31. If they aren't, the loans will be called and all funds must be returned, officials said.

The deal generally tracks key provisions of the bailout legislation that nearly passed Congress earlier this month. But it is relatively lenient in allowing the companies to show their viability. It defines viability as having a positive net present value -- a way of gauging the companies' worth, taking into account all their future obligations.

The "car czar" who gets to determine the viability of the industry is Henry Paulson, for now, but the Obama Administration will get to pick their own official, and as the real decision comes in late March, that position will have more power.

However, what's not in the WSJ write-up, significantly, is that the Bush plan would mirror the Southern-state union-busting plan by significantly reducing American wages:

Targets: The terms and conditions established by Treasury will include additional targets that were the subject of Congressional negotiations but did not come to a vote, including:

• Reduce debts by 2/3 via a debt for equity exchange.
• Make one-half of VEBA payments in the form of stock.
• Eliminate the jobs bank. Work rules that are competitive with transplant auto manufacturers by 12/31/09.
Wages that are competitive with those of transplant auto manufacturers by 12/31/09.

These terms and conditions would be non-binding in the sense that negotiations can deviate from the quantitative targets above, providing that the firm reports the reasons for these deviations and makes the business case to achieve long-term viability in spite of the deviations.

In addition, the firm will be required to conclude new agreements with its other major stakeholders, including dealers and suppliers, by March 31, 2009.

In other words, the UAW must take wages and work rules that are the same as non-union plants, and since "wages" include benefits and legacy costs, and the Big 3 have quite a bit more of those than their Japanese counterparts, this would depress wages FAR BELOW non-union plants. Marcy explains:

Remember, the measure the Republicans were using to measure "wages that are competitive with those of transplant auto manufacturers" was the lizard lie number--the $73/hour, the number that includes legacy costs, the payments to retiree pensions. Otherwise, there would be no reason to make this stipulation--because if you use the real wage number, and not the lizard lie number, American manufacturer wages are already competitive with the transplants!!

So what Bush is demanding is that the UAW lower wages plus pensions to the level of Japanese wages plus pension (though since they have very few retirees, their pension number is basically zero). Alternately, they could lower this number by basically picking the pocket of a bunch of seniors, by taking away pension money those seniors already earned while they were still working. But one or the other will have to happen.

Now, Bush did give the Obama Administration an escape hatch: the ability to deviate from the quantitative targets provided that the companies report why they did so.

But as written, Bush's last major act as President is to demand that workers for American-owned companies work for less than workers for foreign owned companies. American capitalism, at its finest.

Obama praised the decision to actually lend the auto companies money, and suggested that the automakers must not squander the chance to reform their businesses and get back to viability. If that's done entirely on the backs of American workers, however, I don't see the point. "Saving" the auto industry while providing worker wages that rival burger-flipping isn't going to help the economy even a little. We should be working to increase the purchasing power of the middle class, not to reduce it. This could be a situation in the Obama Administration where we will need a strong labor ally in the cabinet to make that case. Good thing we'll have Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

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MN-Sen: Counting Into 2009?

On one level, I think both sides of the Minnesota Senate recount would be happy if they just up and declared a winner already, by whatever method - coin toss, thumb wrestling, a dart thrown at a board. But given that we live in a "democracy" where the party with the most "votes" is declared the winner, that's not going to happen. At least not yet.

So we wait for the counting to finish. The canvassing board is likely to wrap up their review of all the challenged ballots today, and so far things have been going extremely well for Al Franken there, enough for some folks to declare him the likely winner. The latest projections will show him to be up anywhere from 50-150 votes at the end of that process, if the withdrawn challenges are equal on both sides. The problem with that projection is that we don't really know what the deal is with those withdrawn ballots, but those who have taken a look are pretty confident that things look solid for Franken.

But the Minnesota Supreme Court threw a monkey in the wrench with their decision on a handful of absentee ballots (maybe 1,600) that were improperly rejected. They basically asked the campaigns to come up with a uniform counting standard for them, with both sides agreeing that the ballot has been rejected in error. You know, because they've been so helpful to one another so far.

Of course, what happens when a campaign stalls or withholds agreement, such as the Coleman campaign and any Minneapolis precincts? Well, the court threatens Rule 11 sanctions against the lawyers who abuse the process. Big freakin' deal. A Senate seat is at stake. Lawyers will risk fines in order to try and win this.

Ultimately, unless Coleman decides that democracy is good and all improperly rejected ballots should be counted, the Franken campaign will have to go back to court to ensure every properly cast ballot is counted.

So it seems the decision will lead to the right call -- counting all ballots, but makes the process unduly painful.

Coleman's lawyers actually cited Bush v. Gore in his hearing, a ruling so indefensible that the SCOTUS decided it would only be applicable "to the present circumstance". They didn't get what they wanted, but the courts put enough of a fog on the process to be almost as indefensible.

Nate at 538 has more. What this means in practice is that the legal wrangling over the remaining ballots will extend into the new year. And since those absentees have been unopened, it's impossible to predict the outcome without them, unless Franken surges into an unexpected lead or something. Ultimately, I'm reasonably confident that he has this won, but it could go beyond the swearing-in of the new Congress, and we may only have 98 seats at the beginning of the 111th Senate. There's some thought that Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty could in that case appoint a temporary Senator while the recount is being hashed out, but I find that extremely unlikely (the Senate would probably refuse to seat the replacement).

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Senate, Assembly Pass Work-Around Budget

So the State Senate pushed through the creative, $18 billion-dollar lawsuit bait of a budget moments ago by a vote of 23-15. Republican Sen. Mark Wyland abstained and there are only 39 Senators in the chamber, with Mark Ridley-Thomas' seat currently vacant. That means there was one Democratic "No" vote.

Thanks, Lou Correa.

These bills are on the Governor's desk.

Democratic legislators today sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a complex and controversial package of tax increases and program cuts, an $18 billion effort designed to avoid the need for Republican votes that GOP leaders called illegal.

The state Senate and Assembly made their way through the package of bills required for the maneuver, voting along party lines on tax increases while jointly backing other proposals to hasten public works spending. Republicans opposed the tax proposals and accused majority Democrats of breaking the law.

There is some relaxation of environmental legislation in the package. Now we wait to see if the Governor signs it.

...within minutes, the Yacht Party caucus in the Assembly dashed off a letter to the Governor urging him to veto, calling it "the Democrat's illegal tax package." Every member signed it but one - Paul Cook. And contrary to my musings that he was in a tough election fight and might want some distance from the crazies, Shane Goldmacher sez he's out sick.

...And Arnold tells the state to go Cheney themselves. I guess they go back and do whatever union-busting crap he wants now. What a joke.

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The Shining Solis In The Distance

Just because I don't want to give the impression that I'm unhappy about the Solis pick, though I think her skills would've been put to great use in the California governor's race and maybe saved the state, here's a great appreciation by Harold Meyerson, who has followed Solis' career for some time.

In 1996, when she was a back-bencher (and the first Latina) in the California State Senate, Hilda Solis did something that no other political figure I known of had done before, or has done since: She took money out of her own political account to fund a social justice campaign. Under California law, the state minimum wage is set by the gubernatorially-appointed Industrial Welfare Commission, and California’s governors for the preceding 14 years, Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, hadn’t exactly appointed members inclined to raise that wage. So Solis dipped into her own campaign treasury and came up with the money to fund the signature-gatherers to put a minimum wage hike initiative on the California ballot. The signature gatherers gathered the signatures, the measure was placed on the ballot, it passed handily in the next election, and California’s low-wage janitors and gardeners and fry and taco cooks, and millions like them, got a significant raise.

While in the legislature, Solis also became the chief proponent in state government for the environmental justice movement that was bubbling up in various working-class communities around the state, steering to passage bills that reduced airborne carcinogens in industrial areas and that created parkland alongside the rivers that run through some of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods. She took a leading role in promoting domestic violence awareness in the state’s communities of color.

And in 2000, she did something liberals always talk about doing and almost never do: she challenged an incumbent Democratic congressman with a piss-poor record in that Spring’s Democratic primary, and defeated him soundly. Marty Martinez, a 9-term incumbent seeking his 10th, had voted for NAFTA, opposed gun controls and abortion rights, and backed the extension of a freeway into a residential area -- managing to estrange labor, enviros, feminists and liberals of all descriptions. Still, Democrats virtually never run against incumbents, from the left or from anyplace. But Solis, with the encouragement of L.A. County AFL-CIO chieftain Miguel Contreras, did just that. She not only won, but defeated Matinez by a whopping 69 percent to 31 percent margin.

These are all the reasons I've found her California's most compelling politician. And there's also her unyielding advocacy for green jobs, a bill which she authored and passed (though it still hasn't been funded). She understands that the new economy will include the participation of a broad working class in good union jobs working for a new energy economy. What's not to like?

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Trickle To Nowhere

So how's that financial bailout going? Depends on who you ask. Richy McRicherton, CEO of Globo-Capital, thinks it's the straight awsom!!1! Regular folks across the country, not so much.

Reporting from Las Vegas -- In this hard-hit corner of the nation's mortgage meltdown and credit crisis, it's hard to find anybody who sees evidence that the Treasury Department's $700-billion rescue plan is working after two months.

In the first public hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel -- a three-member board mandated to keep close watch on the bailout program enacted in October -- economists, local bankers, beleaguered homeowners and government officials said here Tuesday that the billions of dollars paid out by Washington to the banking industry were not filtering down and that Nevada's desperate condition was growing worse.

Clark County has the nation's highest foreclosure rate. Unemployment has jumped above 7% and lines for free food at charity centers are growing.

"It is a sad day when a child writes to Santa that all she wants for Christmas is food," said Julie A. Murray, who operates the Three Square food bank [...]

The government's solution to the crisis was to bolster the nation's banking system by handing out about $250 billion to scores of banks.

But "there is little evidence of what effect these billions of dollars are having on us," said Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University law professor who chairs the panel.

Warren has repeatedly asked Treasury Department officials for an explanation of their strategy and how the bailout is supposed to help solve the credit crisis, but so far her panel has not received any answers.

The Las Vegas Sun has more.

Meanwhile, that homeowner relief program the White House put into place? Designed to help 400,000 homeowners, so far it's received 312 applications, because it's way too expensive and requires too many forms that lenders and borrowers want nothing to do with it. Predictably, everybody's blaming everybody.

Democrats want to hold back the next installment of $350 billion for the TARP program until the White House comes up with a legitimate plan to help out homeowners. That should be fun to watch.

This is theft.

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(He Oughta Do It) His Way

Top generals have submitted a timeline to remove troops from Iraq that is far more deliberate than what Obama advocated for during the campaign.

The plan was proposed by the top American commanders responsible for Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, and it represents their first recommendation on troop withdrawals under an Obama presidency. While Mr. Obama has said he will seek advice from his commanders, their resistance to a faster drawdown could present the new president with a tough political choice between overruling his generals or backing away from his goal.

The plan, completed last week, envisions withdrawing two more brigades, or some 7,000 to 8,000 troops, from Iraq in the first six months of 2009, the military officials said. But that would leave 12 combat brigades in Iraq by June 2009, and while declining to be more specific, the officials made clear that the withdrawal of all combat forces under the generals’ recommendations would not come until some time after May 2010, Mr. Obama’s target.

The good news here is that in the end, this document does meet with the SOFA agreement to remove all American troops by the end of 2011.

Here's the thing. If Obama was stepping into a bitterly divided debate, demanding his solution when there was still plenty of support for staying in Iraq longer. But that's not the case. Americans are pretty united in wanting troops to leave. 70% want him to withdraw from Iraq within 16 months. Obama really doesn't need to worry about the fallout for rejecting the advice of the generals and going with his original timeline. He does need to be concerned about his generals undermining him. Ultimately there may be some sort of compromise, but the President-elect ought to realize that he has a lot of political capital to spend here.

The good news is that, on other issues, it looks like the military is bending to the will of Obama's campaign promises. Bob Gates is drafting plans for the closure of Guantanamo, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is talking up defense spending cuts.

The top U.S. military officer says the Pentagon cannot afford continued cost overruns and is hinting that some weapons systems may be cut or scaled back under President-elect Barack Obama.

"I'm obviously discouraged by the lack of cost control that we've got in so many ... of our programs," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday.

"We are going to have to get a grip on that or we will not be able to buy them," Mullen said, "or we won't be able to buy them in the quantity we need."

Very encouraging. So hopefully Obama will get his way on this one as well.

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Pre-Arranged Bankruptcy?

George Bush was asked about the auto industry rescue today during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that he hasn't made up his mind yet. But the signs are everywhere that he's looking at an "orderly" bankruptcy for the automakers.

The Bush administration is seriously considering "orderly" bankruptcy as a way of dealing with the desperately ailing U.S. auto industry.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Thursday, "There's an orderly way to do bankruptcies that provides for more of a soft landing. I think that's what we would be talking about." [...]

"Under normal circumstances, no question bankruptcy court is the best way to work through credit and debt and restructuring," he said during a speech and question-and-answer session at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "These aren't normal circumstances. That's the problem."

So we'll force them to go bankrupt anyway, but it'll be done very nicely.

This was floated the day before in a Bloomberg piece, but there it was assumed that bankruptcy would be forced by a "car czar" if the cash infusion didn't work out after March 31. This makes it much more sudden. By the way, that "car czar" looks to be Henry Paulson at this point. I don't think he'll show the same sympathy for blue-collar industry that he did for his financial buddies.

This is insane. Both GM and Ford are retooling themselves for the 21st century, and were on the road to profitability before the economic meltdown. Nobody can buy a car, that's the bottom line, it has nothing to do with what cars are being offered. The ripple effects have begun. Chrysler is shutting down all of its plants and GM is halting its Chevy Volt plant. You're talking about 3 million jobs at risk, and even an orderly bankruptcy is going to shake consumer confidence. It's exactly the wrong thing to do.

I know a lot of people thought that when Bush was left holding the bag after Senate negotiations produced no auto rescue, that the auto companies would end up with a better deal. Doesn't seem like it. Obama's transition could do a lot right now to save the industry and make his job a lot easier, but outside of the odd press release he's been strangely silent.

It's time for him to step in.

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So Very Screwed In California

I urge anyone who cares about California to listen to yesterday's Which Way, LA. It'll make your hair stand up. The program was about the decision by the Pooled Money Investment Board (basically Treasurer Lockyer, Controller Chiang and Schwarzenegger's Finance Secretary Mike Genest) to shut down almost 2,000 public works projects, from schools for the deaf in Riverside to highway improvements along the 405, from hospital construction to transit projects and fire prevention services in heavily forested areas, affecting the entire state and as many as 200,000 jobs over the next several months.

The problem is that California is out of money. But it's bigger than that. The state floats revenue anticipation bonds to cover these kind of public works projects, and indeed the voters approved all kinds of infrastructure bonds in 2006. The issue is that investors simply won't buy them. They believe that California will default on their commitments at some point or another (though it's never happened before) due to the instability of the budget process. Coming up with a work-around to get the budget more balanced (at the expense of hard-won labor rights for public employees, it appears) will go some of the way to fixing that, but NOT all the way. We're at a point of extremely low investor confidence. California has the worst bond rating in the country. So it's not at all clear that the shovels will be picked up again even if the legislature passes and the Governor signs a budget deal. The systemic budget cycle of catastrophe is what's keeping investors away. And of course, if the work-around falls apart or the courts strike it down, the state will be out of money in February and vendors will start receiving IOUs.

What's more, if the Obama Administration offers massive infrastructure spending as part of a recovery package early in his term, EVEN THAT won't necessarily get these projects going. As I understand it, federal grants of this nature often require up-front money from the states, and the opportunity for matching funds if the state kicks in the first 25%. At this time we don't have that money, so we wouldn't be able to access the match. I assume Speaker Pelosi knows this, but it will be difficult to alter the standard practice on this kind of federal spending.

We're talking about 200,000 lost jobs and an infrastructure shutdown at precisely the moment when infrastructure spending is seen as the key to economic recovery, with multiple obstacles to getting them going again. And the state could be liable for whatever rises as a result of the shutdown:

Lockyer and other members of the Pooled Money Investment Board predicted that unless the state balances its budget, the funding shut-off will further harm the economy and expose the state to lawsuits.

"The likelihood of contract breaches is probably 98 percent," Lockyer said [...]

Also at financial risk is a new levee on the lower Feather River in Yuba County and a planned bolstering of Folsom Dam for flood protection.

Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, said the suspension of state funding for the Feather River levee project, already under construction, would put 40,000 people at risk in an area that has flooded twice in the past 25 years [...]

"This (could) put tens of thousands of people's lives at risk, and I believe the state will be liable if there is any damage," Logue said. "The state is responsible for those levees in the first place."

This looks to me like an unending nightmare. If I were Hilda Solis or any California politician, I would want to get the hell out of this state too. It looks like it'll fall into the ocean. But hiding from the problem is a mistake. This has the potential to take down whatever economic recovery we may see come January. The federal government needs to provide direct relief, not grants, to the state, or at the very least guarantee the bond issues so that we can restart the issuance of revenue anticipation notes. You can run, but you can't hide from California.

UPDATE: Bass and Steinberg didn't give away everything but they've incorporated some of Schwarzenegger's "economic stimulus" ideas (read: screwing California workers), and they're plowing ahead with the work-around without knowing if the Governor will sign it. Yikes.

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...Drip, Drip, Drip, Drip...

There were demonstrations in Iraq calling for the release of Muntathar al-Zaidi in Falluja, in the Sunni Triagle, and in the Baghdad Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya. This is not relegated to a concern of Sadrist Shiites. In Falluja, US troops fired warning shots:

University students rallied for Zaidi in Fallujah on Wednesday, drawing the attention of U.S. forces.

Students raised their shoes and threw rocks at American soldiers, who reportedly opened fire above the crowd. Protesters said that indirect fire wounded one student, Zaid Salih. U.S. forces haven't confirmed the account.

"We demonstrated to express our support for Muntathar al Zaidi, but we were surprised with the entrance of the U.S. military," said Ahmed Ismail, one of the protesters. "Unconsciously, we raised our shoes expressing our support for al Zaidi, but they attacked us."

I'm sure that won't escalate.

The mood in Iraq these days is, well let's call it "tense". Yesterday demonstrators blocked the passage out of the Green Zone and ignored warning shots.

Al-Zaidi has formally apologized to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his conduct and begged for forgiveness (his brother thinks it was coerced). For geostrategic reasons alone, he should be set free.

...This raid of the Interior Ministry is interesting. Maliki is clearly using a paramilitary group that he calls an "elite counterterrorism force" to muscle out all his competition. The idea that this was a foiled coup attempt doesn't make sense at all. He is just consolidating power. But if he fails to understand the danger of the al-Zaidi case and the popular movement that could erupt, it won't matter.

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CA-32: Hilda Solis To Be Named Labor Secretary

MSNBC just reported it. They hinted at it earlier today.

It's an outstanding progressive choice. Solis is the daughter of a Teamster shop steward from Mexico, and a tireless advocate for environmental and economic justice. The Labor Department will be an EXTREMELY different place under her leadership.

But I'm bummed that she won't be available to run for Governor. I don't see a movement choice out there now. This is yet another example of California rising nationally and cratering locally. Solis made the right choice, I would say - if you're a California politician, you wouldn't want to work in California at this point.

Sen. Gil Cedillo may end up running for this seat, I think a piece of it overlaps his district. Sen. Gloria Romero is an option as well, as well as Asm. Mike Eng. Hopefully Ron Calderon, a Blue Dog in waiting, won't jump in.

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Obama: We're Going To Agree That You Disagree With Me

The President-elect's justification for choosing Rick Warren to the deliver the invocation at his Inauguration is kind of a mess.

Let me start by talking about my own views. I think it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something I have been consistent on and something I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.

What I've also said is that it is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.

And I would note that a couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion.

Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue, I think, is a part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're never going to agree on every single issue. What we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans. So Rick Warren has been invited to speak, Dr. Joseph Lowery -- who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren about a whole host of issues -- is also speaking.

Obama is playing it very coy here. If this was mid-May and he stood with Warren at a conference on reducing poverty in the Third World, THAT would be an example of America coming together and finding common ground. Giving Warren a platform not tied to a particular issue just elevates him to the bipartisan face of religion in America, and gives him cover from the leader of the Democratic Party. And what's unsaid is that the compromises and calls to "agree to disagree" only get invoked when dealing with the left. It's seen as a political power play to kick the hippies in the teeth, never the other way around.

*** When liberals attack: Axelrod and Gibbs have to be smiling this morning with the news that gay-rights groups are angry that Obama has announced that conservative evangelical Rick Warren will give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Why are they smiling? Because it never hurts -- at least when it comes to governing or running for re-election -- when you sometimes disappoint/anger your party’s interest groups (in this case, People for the American Way and the Human Rights Campaign). Just asking, but is anyone but People for the American Way and the Human Rights Campaign surprised that Rick Warren is going to give a prayer at the inauguration? Where was this outrage when Obama appeared at Warren’s Saddleback forum back in August? The difference may be that the forum came before Proposition 8 passed in California. As for the pure politics of this, when you look at the exit polls and see the large numbers of white evangelicals in swing states like North Carolina, Florida and Missouri, as well as emerging battlegrounds like Georgia and Texas, you'll understand what Obama's up to.

Destroying your credibility with your base - always awesome. That shape-shifter Jonathan Alter was on MSNBC right after Obama's remarks saying the same thing, that the "era of Democratic fealty to interest-group politics is over." Nice to know that civil rights are just the issues of another one of them "interest groups."

If these Beltway chatterers really think that evangelicals are going to come around to Obama, by the way, they're crazy and they don't know how to read polls. Church-goers in general moved to Obama in 2008, but not evangelicals - they stuck with their tribe. When you see the Family Research Council tossing out press releases knocking Obama's Education Secretary pick for wanting to create a "gay high school," you can recognize how stupid it is thinking that "making nice with social conservatives" will bear electoral fruit. And I know it's only important if someone in DC says it, but lots of us were protesting the Saddleback Forum in August.

The Obama Administration talking points on this one are that the inauguration is "open and inclusive," and Warren's good on poverty and AIDS prevention and the environment, and hey, there's going to be an LGBT Marching Band, and Rev. Joseph Lowery, a pro-gay preacher, is delivering the benediction. But that misses the point entirely. This is about giving agency and bipartisan cover to someone with loathsome views on gays, on the pro-choice movement, and on the assassination of a foreign leader. There is no way to rationalize this.

UPDATE: I agree that the idea that Rick Warren gave protesters water and donuts kind of doesn't make up for stripping away their fundamental rights. And Jane Hamsher has some more good thoughts.

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The (Very) Quiet Revolution

I would say that not everyone is happy with Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack:

While Vilsack has promoted respectable policies with respect to restraining livestock monopolies, his overall record is one of aiding and abetting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or factory farms and promoting genetically engineered crops and animal cloning. Equally troubling is Vilsack's support for unsustainable industrial ethanol production, which has already caused global corn and grain prices to skyrocket, literally taking food off the table for a billion people in the developing world.

The Organic Consumers Association is calling on organic consumers and all concerned citizens to join our call to action and block Vilsack's confirmation as the next Secretary of Agriculture. Please help us reach our goal of 100,000 petition signatures against Vilsack' nomination. Sign today! Your email will be sent to your Senators and the President-Elect's office.

I think Tom Philpott has this right - these issues weren't really included in Obama's message of change, and hopes that there would be anything radically different in ag policy were unfounded.

People in the sustainable-ag world -- including me -- are having a tough time time accepting that Obama has picked an a ethanol-loving, GMO enthusiast as his USDA chief.

But then again, Obama himself is a strong supporter of both GMOs and ethanol, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised.

That said, if you didn't expect ag policy to be much of a concern for this Administration, Vilsack is actually a fairly decent choice on the margins, though obviously not in the big picture. He supports labeling GMO food and a stricter approval process at the FDA for biotech. His outlook on ethanol sucks, as you might expect from a former Iowa governor, but he does support ending the tariffs on Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and even phasing out corn ethanol subsidies, as well as researching second-generation biofuels that are less resource-intensive. He has spoken of using food to support in Obama's foreign policy message of soft power, to aid those suffering from malnutrition and famine. And he wants to revamp the school nutrition program.

Vilsack has been fairly open and accessible on his beliefs, and while ultimately the status quo will probably maintain, I think there's room for him to listen to progressives and even implement some policies they like.

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Missed Appointments

The scandal-plagued Illinois governor will not appoint a Senator to the vacant seat formerly held by Barack Obama, according to his lawyer.

Genson said he doesn't expect Blagojevich will make an appointment.

"Harry Reid said that they're not going to accept anybody he picks," said Genson, referring to the Senate majority leader. "Why would he do that?"

This means that we'd have to wait for Blagojevich to be impeached for a replacement to that seat, which could take months. I think I remember a process where Blagojevich could step aside and allow the appointment to be made by his Lieutenant Governor, but I'm not sure he'll be so helpful. And with the special election out the window, that means that we could go into the 111th Congress with 99 Senators, which would not be optimal.

Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel, who many speculated was moving to have HIS replacement in IL-05 be a "seat warmer" so that he could get his job back after serving in the White House, is claiming he'll stay out of the race. I'll believe that when I see it, and I want to know more about Blagojevich's reference to the fifth district that was picked up on federal wiretaps.

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The Bigger Con Is SEC Officials Pretending To Work

Yesterday, Chris Cox, the chairman of the SEC threw his mercy on the court.

The Commission has learned that credible and specific allegations regarding Mr. Madoff's financial wrongdoing, going back to at least 1999, were repeatedly brought to the attention of SEC staff, but were never recommended to the Commission for action.

Cox is authorizing an Inspector General probe. Someone honorable might resign in disgrace. Apparently, the investigations of Madoff it finally got around to relied on VOLUNTARY information from Madoff himself. Madoff's niece married an SEC official who was involved in oversight of Madoff's brokerage business. The amount of obvious, credible warning signs that the SEC missed in this case are growing. I would simply have looked at the fact that Madoff's own sons' foundations invested elsewhere is a pretty decent sign in its own right. The reason that nobody at the SEC went after Madoff is that he was a "master of the universe."

Fusfeld added that during the 90's he had used Madoff as a witness in a securities case to which Madoff was tangentially connected. "The man had charisma," said Fusfeld."He was one of those people that, when he walked into a room, everyone stopped what they were doing and watched him."

Had the SEC watched him a little closer, however, numerous investors might have been saved some crippling losses.


Today, President-elect Obama introduced Mary Schapiro, a longtime regulator, to replace Chris Cox at the SEC. It's impossible for her to do worse, and I hope she wields the Madoff scandal as an impetus to do rigorous and effective oversight over these clowns, and I hope she is provided new regulatory tools to conduct that oversight.

Other regulatory appointments are profiled here.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let's Check What Holder Had To Do With Carter's Bungled Iranian Hostage Rescue!

I know that the right is trying to make an example of Eric Holder, but going back to questioning his role in the Elian Gonzales case and his support of the Brady Bill (???) just makes them look completely ridiculous. If the goal is to stop the Holder nomination, or even to paint him as a tool of liberal special interests, dredging up things that are 9 and 10 years old is not going to help. This rebounds back on them more than anything.

However, I think Marcy Wheeler is on to something. The goal is to slow down the Holder nomination with countless challenges enough to delay the time that he gets his hands on the opinions approving torture and warrantless wiretapping produced by the OLC (Office of Legal Counsel). There's a lot of incriminating material in those opinions, which the Bush Administration hasthus far held from the Obama transition team as well as Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Why would the delay be so important to Bush and company? Maybe to just keep the programs going for a little while longer. Or, maybe to give more time to impress upon Obama that he needs these radical powers:

In an interview with Rush Limbaugh (via Politico), Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that the next president will appreciate the way he and George Bush expanded executive power.

"Once they get here and they're faced with the same problems we deal with every day, then they will appreciate some of the things we've put in place," Cheney said.

"We did not exceed our constitutional authority, as some have suggested," Cheney added. "The President believes, I believe very deeply, in a strong executive, and I think that's essential in this day and age. And I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress. I think they'll find that given a challenge they face, they'll need all the authority they can muster."

Cheney has been practically bursting with pride over invading a country with no real rationale and waterboarding terror suspects. I'm certain he's delusional enough to believe that everyone is as psychotic as he is, and once given supreme unitary executive powers they won't want to relinquish them. Delaying Holder ensures that Obama at least has a few months to test out the new tools. Now, he has repeatedly promised to close Gitmo and end torture (on wiretapping he hasn't been completely clear, and he voted for the awful FISA bill), so I don't think this is such a good bet. But once you give someone powers, it's not always likely that they willingly give them up.

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Points For Creativity

This is kind of a gangster move by Darrell Steinberg. It doesn't raise the gas tax for consumers as much as it looks. It's a maneuver to get around the 2/3 vote. The gas "fee" is implemented on a majority-line vote, and the real increases are to the income tax, sales tax and the oil severance tax. The actual increase in gas fees would be about $0.13 cents a gallon. Gas has decreased about $3.00 a gallon since the summer. Really, I just appreciate the creativity to get this done at all.

The first part of the plan is a quarter-cent sales tax hike that will bring in the state an estimated $1.6 billion in the next fiscal year.

At first blush, that would seem to require a two-thirds vote. But Democrats insist that technically they won't be voting to raise the tax.

Instead, they will be voting simply to stop paying that amount to local governments. With that money not flowing, local sales taxes have a trigger to automatically rise ¼ of a percent.

So the move is a de facto tax hike and the state saves money by not paying local governments.

The second part of the equation is just as complex.

In a single bill, Democrats will eliminate the sales and excise taxes on gasoline and replace those taxes with higher income taxes, sales tax and an oil severance tax.

The total revenues collected will turn out the same in that bill.

But the Democrats will then vote on a different piece of legislation to replace the old gas sales and excise taxes (which only went to transportation needs) with a gasoline "fee," to be set at 39 cents per gallon.

Because they are raising a "fee" and not a "tax," Democrats believe (and they say their lawyers have approved) they can do this will a majority vote.

If you want to look at the ACTUAL tax increases that would result, I think oil severance is a no-brainer, we're the only state in the union without one. The sales tax and the income tax hikes and the gas taxes are pretty flat, although lower-income residents use public transit more than others, so there's a patina of progressivity. I would prefer a millionaire's tax. But in this time of crisis, a little shared sacrifice makes sense.

And as I said, it's the out-of-the-box thinking that makes this a winner in my book. As well as Steinberg's hard-core rhetoric:

After the longest budget stalemate in California history and a month-and-half of gridlock in a special session, Steinberg claimed Democrats had "made every effort to engage our Republican colleagues in a bipartisan strategy to make a dent in this budget deficit."

"They're very clear," he continued. "They are not going to put up a single vote to raise the necessary revenue."

"You have two choices," Steinberg said. "You can either continue to sort of bang your head against the wall and hope that they will change their mind or you can govern. And we believe the higher responsibility is to govern."

"The message to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle is we want you to engage in governing with us. But now and beginning Jan. 1 in the next budget session, we will solve this problem either with you or without."


Desperate times call for desperate measures. The Controller, Treasurer and Finance Director today voted to freeze all state construction projects at the worst possible time. Halting these projects hits every piece of the state: a veterans home in West LA, fire protection in forested areas, five schools in Compton, a school for the deaf in Riverside, highways, hospitals, basically anything with a shovel. In a statement, Controller Chiang was pained to make this vote but had no choice. There's simply no money and without revenue enchancement or cutbacks the state is staring into the abyss. The Democrats in the legislature had to do something. Steinberg's maneuver is very good stuff when seen in that context.

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Drip, Drip, Drip

The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament has resigned over the al-Zaidi arrest.

Iraq's parliament speaker announced his resignation Wednesday after a parliamentary session descended into chaos as lawmakers argued about whether to free a journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush.

The speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, has threatened to resign before and has been suspended for embarrassing the prime minister with erratic behavior.

On Wednesday, after arguments erupted among lawmakers over the fate of the journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the speaker said: "I have no honor leading this parliament and I announce my resignation."

al-Mashhadani is a Salafi elected on the Iraqi Accord Front list, a Sunni-led slate. So much for the idea that only Shiite Sadrists supported al-Zaidi.

Meanwhile, as rallies seeking al-Zaidi's release continue, he received a judge in his jail cell rather than a courtroom today, pleading guilty to the charges.

THE Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at United States President George W. Bush has appeared before a judge in his jail cell because he is too injured to appear in a courtroom, his brother says.

The al-Zaidi family went to Baghdad's Central Criminal Court expecting to attend a hearing, his brother, Dhargham, said.

He said the family was told that the investigative judge went to see al-Zaidi in jail, and to return in eight days, Associated Press has reported.

"That means my brother was severely beaten and they fear that his appearance could trigger anger at the court,'' Dhargham said.

The anger is already being triggered. This is very dangerous.

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Exile In Condiland

I know that the Administration is trying to put the best face on the disaster they've made of things the last few years, and they're entitled to try, but I would submit to them that they stop using Condi Rice for this purpose. She is the worst liar of the bunch, and the most brazen.

This week, SO FAR, she's claimed that Iran tried to stop the SOFA agreement in Iraq (they, um, didn't, and in fact approved the proposal in the end), she made the argument that no American money was wasted in the reconstruction of Iraq (save, oh, tens of billions documented in a recent report and the $12 billion handed out from the back of a plane), and she decided that the United States has embraced the UN more than any President "maybe ever" (other than appointing a UN Ambassador who thinks that if the UN building lost ten stories it wouldn't make a bit of difference).

There are more examples here and here. Does she know that people are listening when she talks? This woman should be laughed off the Stanford campus when she returns.

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Neither Kinder Nor Gentler

The news that anti-gay bigot Rick Warren will be delivering the invocation at the inauguration of Barack Obama really sucks. Not necessarily because I think the invocation is such a great platform - quick, name the last ten people to do it! - but because of the likelihood that Warren will be tapped for other responsibilities when Obama becomes President, and will subsequently become the face of religion in America. And while I don't have a problem working with pastors, even those in the evangelical movement, on the common ground issues like AIDS prevention and poverty, Warren is not the one that Democrats should be elevating. He's a snake charmer who is just as extreme as a Falwell or a Robertson. Here's PFAW's release:

Pastor Warren, while enjoying a reputation as a moderate based on his affable personality and his church's engagement on issues like AIDS in Africa, has said that the real difference between James Dobson and himself is one of tone rather than substance. He has recently compared marriage by loving and committed same-sex couples to incest and pedophilia. He has repeated the Religious Right's big lie that supporters of equality for gay Americans are out to silence pastors. He has called Christians who advance a social gospel Marxists. He is adamantly opposed to women having a legal right to choose an abortion.

I'm sure that Warren's supporters will portray his selection as an appeal to unity by a president who is committed to reaching across traditional divides. Others may explain it as a response to Warren inviting then-Senator Obama to speak on AIDS and candidate Obama to appear at a forum, both at his church. But the sad truth is that this decision further elevates someone who has in recent weeks actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans.

Liberals just aren't going to see eye to eye with Rick Warren. There's no compromise to be made. This is a guy who recently agreed that Iran needs to be "taken out" in language that is not discernible from a mullah. This guy does not need to be made the kinder, gentler face of the evangelical movement, in a cynical play for support that will not be forthcoming. It's a big mistake.

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The Republican War Against Unions

It's pretty clear that the GOP war on the auto companies had little to do with bailing out GM and Chrysler and everything to do with busting unions. There is no majority that is against bailouts or federal aid in and of itself; indeed, 18 Republican Senators voted for the financial bailout and against the auto rescue, which is pretty much indefensible. If Dick Cheney is able to understand that letting the automakers die would trigger a possible depression, then there's no ideological blockade against this kind of thing.

On the other thing, it comes at an especially bad time because as I say it's on the heels of the financial crisis and we're on the downside of a recession that may be the worst since World War II. And if the automobile industry goes belly up now, there's a deep concern that that would be a major shock to the system. It might be different under different economic circumstances.

But GOP lawmakers made it fairly explicit in their internal deliberations that this was a union fight, and they also characterized it as the first round of the battle against the Employee Free Choice Act:

Handing a defeat to labor and its Democratic allies in Congress was also seen as a preemptive strike in what is expected to be a major battle for the new Congress in January: the unions' bid for a so-called card check law that would make it easier for them to organize workers, potentially reversing decades of declining power. The measure is strongly opposed by business groups.

"This is the Democrats' first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election," read an e-mail circulated Wednesday among Senate Republicans. "This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it."

One of the leading opponents of the auto bailout, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said: "Year after year, union bosses have put their interests ahead of the workers they claim to represent. Congress never should have given these unions this much power, and now is the time to fix it."

Congress didn't "give" unions anything, of course. Workers took their rights to organize through concerted effort and mass action. Congress helped set labor law designed to stop them.

(By the way, make this guy the Labor Secretary, President-elect Obama. Make it happen today.)

Morgan Johnson, president of the United Auto Workers local representing General Motors workers in Shreveport, said Friday that Sen. David Vitter's role in blocking an auto bailout indicates "he's chosen to play Russian roulette" with Louisiana jobs and the national economy.

"I don't know what Sen. Vitter has against GM or the United Auto Workers or the entire domestic auto industry; whatever it is, whatever he thinks we've done, it's time for him to forgive us, just like Sen. Vitter has asked the citizens of Louisiana to forgive him, " said Johnson, president of Local 2166. Otherwise, Johnson said of Vitter, it would appear, "He'd rather pay a prostitute than pay auto workers."

But the fearmongering, the demonization of unions that found a home on talk radio, worked at least in part in this case. Most Americans oppose an auto bailout because they fault the industry for its own problems, and that has a lot to do with the rhetoric about "generous union contracts." And I don't think this is necessarily about Republicans wanting a Depression as much as them wanting to protect their corporate interests and stop the gains of the labor movement over the last decade. They see it as poisonous to corporate profits and deadly to their political futures, as union households historically vote Democratic.

Now we're seeing this spill into other issues as well. There's no reason to associate the Blagojevich scandal with "union bosses" other than to cement that image in the public mind that unions are the problem and must be fought.

Kicking off what promises to be a huge fight over labor's top legislative priority, a pro-business group is sinking over a million dollars into a TV ad campaign tying Rod Blagojevich to "union bosses" and calling on Democratic Senators in four states to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act.

The ad -- which was sent over by a source and hasn't been released to the press -- seeks to tar the Employee Free Choice Act as vaguely corrupt-sounding by tying it rather tangentially to the Blago mess. It's being aired by Americans for Job Security, a business-funded group that is expected to spend big money to sink the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize and is labor's top goal for 2009.

The head lobbyist for pro-business interests is Rick Berman, a Washington fixture who reads like somebody out of a Christopher Buckley novel:

Berman, hired by businesses, fights efforts such as further restricting drinking and driving, mandating healthier foods and raising the minimum wage. The former labor relations lawyer argues that many of the restrictions reduce our ability to make our own choices.

He seldom mentions his clients, other than to say many are in the food and restaurant industries, and he represents them through a variety of non-profit groups he has set up. His targets range from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the Ralph Nader-founded Center for Science in the Public Interest, which works on food issues, to labor unions...

Berman spent the last couple of years fighting obesity-focused trial lawyers and consumer groups who have succeeded in getting trans fats out of many foods and soft-drink machines out of schools -- the latter a move he finds ludicrous because high-calorie juice is allowed and diet drinks aren't.

Currently, he's predicting that when they're done with fat, the food-safety groups will focus more on demonizing caffeine. And MADD, he says, won't be happy until there is a breathalyzer in every car and social drinkers are scared into public sobriety.

Berman expects to raise $30 million dollars to fight the EFCA, and his efforts have already gotten one Democrat to waver, not surprisingly a Senator from the home of Wal-Mart.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln says she doesn’t think federal legislation that would allow labor organizations to unionize workplaces without secret-ballot elections is necessary. But in an interview with The Associated Press today, Lincoln gave herself room to support the measure if it’s brought up later.

Business and labor groups are pressuring the Democratic senator from Arkansas for support either way. Tim Griffin, a potential challenger to the senator’s 2010 re-election bid, has said her stand could be an issue in the race.

That's right, Karl Rove's protégé Tim Griffin, the man responsible for voter caging in Florida in 2004, and a key part of the US Attorney scandal, is mulling a run for Senate. And he's putting union jobs at the heart of his campaign. Because the biggest issue facing America is that some people in the working class make too much money.

There are extremely powerful forces seeking to block the Employee Free Choice Act. We have nothing on our side but people power. SEIU is planning events where ordinary people speak directly with McDonald's employees tomorrow, asking them "what it's like to work for a CEO who is paid 770 times what his workers earn, leaving working families with barely enough to afford the 'Dollar Menu.'" You can find an event in your areahere.

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