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

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why A Special Prosecutor? Let Me Count The Ways

We have so many reasons from the last Administration that highlight the importance of a special prosecutor to deal with the wreck of the previous eight years, it's a serious task to count them all. Aside from torture, warrantless spying, black sites, indefinite detention, the suspension of habeas corpus, outing a covert CIA operative, lying the country to war in Iraq? You mean we need more reasons?

More broadly, one can highlight the problem of an accountability-free zone in Washington, regardless of the issue. If there is literally no issue where top officials can ever be held to account, this does nothing but give government, in particular the executive branch that deals with security and secrecy, a license to run wild. Consider just the past 48 hours:

• We finally got a report on the scope of the Administration's spying programs, the consensus of five Inspectors General, and while we learned a fair bit of interesting details about the nature of the internal debate over the program, the fact that John Yoo was one of the only human beings in America to know about it because the Cheney/Addington crowd knew he would produce favorable rulings legitimizing it, and the fact that the secrecy ultimately undermined whatever the program was designed to produce in terms of intelligence, all we really learned is that some surveillance program operated completely outside the boundaries of the law, without oversight by Congress, and we to this day have no idea about the extent or nature of the spying. As Glennzilla says, this does not comprise an investigation:

Nonetheless, because the Obama administration is actively blocking any real investigation -- Obama opposes all Congressional investigations into Bush-era crimes and, worse, is engaged in extraordinary efforts to block courts from adjudicating the legality of Bush's surveillance activities by claiming that even long-obsolete and clearly criminal programs are "state secrets" -- it is quite likely, despite how blatant is the lawbreaking, that there will be no consequences for any of it. In a Look-to-the-Future-Not-the-Past political culture, it's irrelevant how severe is the lawbreaking by high government officials. They know they will face no consequences even when, as here, they deliberately commit felonies -- which is precisely why criminality is so rampant in our political class [...]

The IG Report is more notable for what it fails to address than for what it discloses, but that's the nature of IG Reports. Most of the key players who authorized the illegal domestic spying -- David Addington, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, Andrew Card, John Ashcroft, George Tenet -- simply refused to talk to the IGs or, in many cases, didn't even bother responding to their request. The IG's have no power at all to compel them to do so; it's entirely optional. That -- aside from the fact that they work within the Executive Branch and for the very agencies they are supposed to investigate -- is what makes IGs such an inadequate substitute for real oversight: no matter how much integrity and independence they might have, they are extremely limited in what they can achieve.

As any litigator will tell you, the lack of power to compel key witnesses to answer questions and produce documents severely hampers any ability to conduct a real investigation. Yet, when they passed the FISA Amendments Act -- which legalized Bush's spying programs and immunized lawbreaking telecoms -- Democratic leaders kept pointing to the requirement of an IG Report to placate those complaining that they were whitewashing and legalizing Bush abuses. But IGs are simply incapable, given their very limited powers and their institutional allegiances, of any real investigation of this sort. What they were unable to disclose in this Report underscores how limited are their investigative abilities [...]

Over the past couple of years, there have been isolated leaks suggesting abuses of these eavesdropping powers, but there has been no real investigation into the ends to which these surveillance powers were used. As a legal question, it matters little: eavesdropping without warrants is a felony no matter the purpose for which it was done. But since FISA's warrant requirement arose from the recognition that widespread surveillance abuses were virtually inevitable if eavesdropping was conducted without judicial oversight, the lack of any investigation into this question reveals the extent to which both parties have been eager to help cover-up the crimes that were committed during the Bush years. The IG Report sheds some light onto what happened, but most of it, as intended, remains in the dark, and real accountability is still as far away as it was before this Report was issued.

Russ Feingold said in a statement that "This report leaves no doubt that the warrantless wiretapping program was blatantly illegal and an unconstitutional assertion of executive power."

• The United States government, under two Presidents, blocked any investigation into the mass slaughter of perhaps thousands of Afghans by a warlord.

American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation — sought by officials from the F.B.I., the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups — because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the C.I.A. and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001, several officials said. They said the United States also worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official.

“At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either,” said Pierre Prosper, the former American ambassador for war crimes issues. “The first reaction of everybody there was, ‘Oh, this is a sensitive issue; this is a touchy issue politically.’ ”

It is not clear how — or if — the Obama administration will address the issue. But in recent weeks, State Department officials have quietly tried to thwart General Dostum’s reappointment as military chief of staff to the president, according to several senior officials, and suggested that the administration might not be hostile to an inquiry.

These are the prisoners stuffed into metal containers without food and water, and left helpless as guards shot into the containers. And we never investigated it, despite having a military presence in the country for seven years. Agence France Press has more.

• And then there's this:

The Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the agency’s director, Leon E. Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said Saturday.

The report that Mr. Cheney was behind the decision to conceal the still-unidentified program from Congress deepened the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that the Bush administration had put a high priority on the program and its secrecy.

Mr. Panetta, who ended the program when he first learned of its existence from subordinates on June 23, briefed the two intelligence committees about it in separate closed sessions the next day.

Remember that we have no idea what this program is, although there are some indications that this may be the infamous executive assassination ring. So because of the lack of accountability, the Vice President can order the CIA to keep a sensitive counter-terrorism program completely secret and therefore beyond oversight.

I would offer that all of these programs and secret plans and extra-Constitutional deployment of powers, well summarized here by Tom Watson, are a direct result of the complete lack of accountability for the actions taken by officials in the executive branch. The processes of oversight through the Congress and the Inspector General reports offer little opportunity for sanction. The expansion of executive power over the years gives many opportunities to short-circuit accountability through invocations of state secrets or national security. So without an independent prosecutor with subpoena power allowed to follow out the dictates of equal justice under the law, we will see an increase of air into the balloon, more and more, until it consumes us all. We have to pop the unaccountability bubble.

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David Brooks As Irene Cara In Fame

A very strange remark from David Brooks.

BROOKS: You know, all three of us spend a lot of time covering politicians and I don’t know about you guys, but in my view, they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another. They’re guaranteed to invade your personal space, touch you. I sat next to a Republican senator once at dinner and he had his hand on my inner thigh the whole time. I was like, ehh, get me out of here.


BROOKS: I can only imagine what happens to you guys.

O’DONNELL: Sorry, who was that?

BROOKS: I’m not telling you, I’m not telling you.

You can speculate about whether or not Brooks was giving this old codger a little thrill up his leg in exchange for some access, or just being ridiculously overly polite, but I will say that in this day and age, the line between prostitution and journalism is little more than a difference in the employer's choice of Cadillac tail fins and fedoras.

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Holder Of The Cards

Newsweek is reporting that the Attorney General is considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the Bush/Cheney torture regime.

Holder, 58, may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way. Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter. Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform. Holder knows all this, and he has been wrestling with the question for months. "I hope that whatever decision I make would not have a negative impact on the president's agenda," he says. "But that can't be a part of my decision."

This comes smack dab in the middle of a more personal profile of Holder, with sketches of his easygoing temperament, his fealty to the law measured against his sympathy with the President's agenda, the figure that he and his wife cut at dinner parties (!), his desire to seek common ground in an Obama-esque fashion, a longish section on the Marc Rich issue, and more. It's almost an elegy for the Eric Holder before making the decision to appoint an independent prosecutor, if not a warning that this man will be lost if he pursues such a decision. It's almost that the reporters were preparing a puff piece or beat sweetener and they stumbled upon some hard news.

But there is news here, even beyond the point on an independent prosecutor. The authors try to depict the actions of the Justice Department throughout the Obama Presidency, and on that front, they seem to have taken Holder's side as someone trying desperately to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Such as:

Holder couldn't shake what he had learned in reports about the treatment of prisoners at the CIA's "black sites." If the public knew the details, he and his aides figured, there would be a groundswell of support for an independent probe. He raised with his staff the possibility of appointing a prosecutor. According to three sources familiar with the process, they discussed several potential choices and the criteria for such a sensitive investigation. Holder was looking for someone with "gravitas and grit," according to one of these sources, all of whom declined to be named. At one point, an aide joked that Holder might need to clone Patrick Fitzgerald, the hard-charging, independent-minded U.S. attorney who had prosecuted Scooter Libby in the Plamegate affair. In the end, Holder asked for a list of 10 candidates, five from within the Justice Department and five from outside [...]

For weeks Holder had participated in a contentious internal debate over whether the Obama administration should release the Bush-era legal opinions that had authorized waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods. He had argued to administration officials that "if you don't release the memos, you'll own the policy." CIA Director Leon Panetta, a shrewd political operator, countered that full disclosure would damage the government's ability to recruit spies and harm national security; he pushed to release only heavily redacted versions.

Holder and his aides thought they'd been losing the internal battle. What they didn't know was that, at that very moment, Obama was staging a mock debate in Emanuel's office in order to come to a final decision. In his address to the cadets, Holder cited George Washington's admonition at the Battle of Trenton, Christmas 1776, that "captive British soldiers were to be treated with humanity, regardless of how Colonial soldiers captured in battle might be treated." As Holder flew back to Washington on the FBI's Cessna Citation, Obama reached his decision. The memos would be released in full.

Holder and his team celebrated quietly, and waited for national outrage to build. But they'd miscalculated. The memos had already received such public notoriety that the new details in them did not shock many people. (Even the revelation, a few days later, that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and another detainee had been waterboarded hundreds of times did not drastically alter the contours of the story.) And the White House certainly did its part to head off further controversy. On the Sunday after the memos were revealed, Emanuel appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos and declared that there would be no prosecutions of CIA operatives who had acted in good faith with the guidance they were given. In his statement announcing the release of the memos, Obama said, "This is a time for reflection, not retribution." (Throughout, however, he has been careful to say that the final decision is the attorney general's to make.)

This depiction of Holder and the Justice Department acting at cross purposes to a White House that wanted to keep a lid on past abuses of the Bush Administration neglects the fact that they have in many cases openly facilitated such a cover-up in court filings. The DoJ has consistently invoked the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits, tried to keep various records from the past secret, advocated for things like preventive detention and post-acquittal detention, and so on. Among many liberals the Justice Department has been the source of the greatest disappointment in the entire Administration. Clearly, they got the ear of Newsweek, who decided to paint a narrative around this decision on an independent prosecutor. But it doesn't totally scan. Here's the conclusion:

The next few weeks, though, could test Holder's confidence. After the prospect of torture investigations seemed to lose momentum in April, the attorney general and his aides turned to other pressing issues. They were preoccupied with Gitmo, developing a hugely complex new set of detention and prosecution policies, and putting out the daily fires that go along with running a 110,000-person department. The regular meetings Holder's team had been having on the torture question died down. Some aides began to wonder whether the idea of appointing a prosecutor was off the table.

But in late June Holder asked an aide for a copy of the CIA inspector general's thick classified report on interrogation abuses. He cleared his schedule and, over two days, holed up alone in his Justice Department office, immersed himself in what Dick Cheney once referred to as "the dark side." He read the report twice, the first time as a lawyer, looking for evidence and instances of transgressions that might call for prosecution. The second time, he started to absorb what he was reading at a more emotional level. He was "shocked and saddened," he told a friend, by what government servants were alleged to have done in America's name. When he was done he stood at his window for a long time, staring at Constitution Avenue.

The failure to hold those who directed and authorized torture to account impacts our national security and foreign policy in so many different ways, beyond encouraging further abuses and encroachment of executive power. Just this week, alleged cases of torture by the Mexican government in prosecuting the drug war have been revealed, and despite American funding contributing indirectly to these actions, we have little recourse to mount any efforts against it.

Many Mexican human rights activists do not support the [human rights] conditions, noting that they were imposed by a U.S government widely accused of torturing prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“It really takes a lot of cynicism, a lot of hypocrisy, for the United States to say, ‘We will give you money to fight drug trafficking as long as you respect human rights,’” said José Raymundo Díaz Taboada, director of the Acapulco office of the Collective Against Torture and Impunity, which documents abuses in Guerrero.

I think nobody will expect Holder to follow through on this until the moment he announces it, especially given the record of the Obama Justice Department. But there's at least a glimmer of hope that in the documents of the Bush era, the abuses crossed, in the mind of the Attorney General, a bridge too far. And if this is a trial balloon, it's one of the first in the direction of accountability and justice. Perhaps they're looking for some agreement.

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The Post-IOU World

Today is the first day that most large banks stop taking IOUs from individuals and small businesses. For those left holding them, the options are limited. Citibank agreed to a one-week extension, and Bank of the West will accept them - but only for existing customers. Other big banks may offer lines of credit or other short-term bridges for customers, but on a case-by-case basis. IOU holders needing cash might be able to try credit unions, or inevitably, check-cashing stores. And this all appears to suit Arnold Antionette just fine:

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer tried to persuade the big banks to change their minds about the IOUs. "We're just trying to convince them that it would be in the best interest of their customers and the best interest of taxpayers to give it more time," said his spokesman Tom Dresslar.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made no such attempt at persuasion. "His focus is to get a solution to our budget so we don't have to deal with IOUs," said his spokesman Aaron McLear. "I don't think it was anyone's expectation that they would honor them forever."

Emerging from a meeting with legislative leaders Friday, the governor would say only that "IOUs are one more reason to get the budget done as quickly as possible."

In 1992, the last time the state issued IOUs, the major banks accepted them for about a month. Their refusal to go any further was widely seen as a move to pressure officials to pass a budget.

Yes, of course, this is why he vetoed solutions that would have stopped the issuance of IOUs in the first place.

Meanwhile, John Chiang's latest release of the state economic picture shows a $10 billion dollar shortfall in Fiscal Year 2009, and a still-contracting revenue picture that has led to a $4 billion dollar delay in payments to local school districts. They has planned on sending out the money Friday; now they will hold off until July 30.

And the Big Five have returned to the negotiating table today, where they claim "constructive" negotiations, which we've heard plenty of times before. No word on whether the Governor continues to hinge a budget deal on uncorroborated fictions about fraud in social services or fiscally unwise cuts to programs like welfare.

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Mission Creep

You really start to feel a chill up your spine when reading another American general arguing for more troops to fight a war with vague goals and no end game strategy:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly arrived top commander in Afghanistan, has concluded that the Afghan security forces will have to be far larger than currently planned if President Obama's strategy for winning the war is to succeed, according to senior military officials.

Such an expansion would require spending billions more than the $7.5 billion the administration has budgeted annually to build up the Afghan army and police over the next several years, and the likely deployment of thousands more U.S. troops as trainers and advisers, officials said.

Obama has voiced strong commitment to the ongoing Afghan conflict but has been cautious about making any additional military resources available beyond the 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 military trainers he agreed to in February. That will bring the total U.S. force to 68,000 by fall.

Instead, Obama has emphasized the need to pay equal attention to other aspects of the U.S. effort, including bolstering Afghanistan's economy and governance. Announcement of any additional military resources this year would raise questions from Congress and the American public about whether his overall strategy is working as intended [...]

"There are not enough Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police for our forces to partner with in operations . . . and that gap will exist into the coming years even with the planned growth already budgeted for," said a U.S. military official in Kabul who is familiar with McChrystal's ongoing review.

Without significant increases, said another U.S. official involved in training Afghan forces, "we will lose the war." Gates would have to agree to any request from McChrystal for additional funding or troops, and recommend it to Obama.

We know the history of how "advisors and trainers" converted into soldiers and airmen in Vietnam. That has been the nature of post-World War II American combat, in many respects. America has mastered the art of committing itself deeper and deeper into war, but not the art of extricating itself from them.

McChrystal isn't the only general asking for more Afghan troops and trainers. And that's because, obviously, the whole military has become consumed with counter-insurgency missions that are labor-intensive and require large numbers of troops to clear, hold and build areas. Without them, insurgents melt away when attacked, retreat to safer ground and carry out operations unimpeded. Afghanistan is a large country with rugged terrain, and to carry off this COIN strategy would require many more troops than currently available.

And for what? We are ostensibly in Afghanistan to deny Al Qaeda safe havens, but commanders on the ground have acknowledged that Al Qaeda left Afghanistan long ago, and indeed most of our counter-terrorism actions are taking place in Pakistan. The war has morphed into a low-level (yet expanding) conflict against home-grown Taliban insurgents who do not come out of the same Wahhabist Islam cult, but are primarily comprised of angered citizens who either fight for money or because US airstrikes killed their relatives. We must question whether stopping this force from participating in the Pashtun areas (they have no support elsewhere) is worth the cost in American lives and treasure. From a national security standpoint, can't we further our goals through local law enforcement and intelligence in the region? Can't we find a diplomatic settlement instead of the stalemate we have today?

If we fail to reckon with the overall mission, we will just add more and more troops for no good reason. The President needs to get on top of this today. Maybe the commitment should determine the strategy, not the other way around.

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Soaking The Rich Or Adding Brackets?

I still think that reducing the charitable donation deduction makes more sense than adding a surtax for the rich in paying for health care reform. Both hit similar groups of people but the talking points are much easier with capping the charitable deduction - you mean people don't give out of the goodness of their hearts, but to get a tax break? It's just an easier sell.

But as the House appears to be moving toward a surtax, let's be clear about it:

The proposal calls for a surtax on individuals earning at least $280,000 in adjusted gross income and couples earning more than $350,000, said the chairman, Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York.

It would generate about $550 billion over 10 years to pay about half the cost of the legislation, Mr. Rangel said. As the proposal envisions it, the rest of the cost would be covered by lower spending on Medicare, the government health plan for the elderly, and other health care savings [...]

But emerging from daylong committee negotiations Friday, Mr. Rangel said the income surtax would take effect in 2011 and begin at 1 percent of adjusted gross income — earnings before deductions like those for mortgage interest and charitable contributions — and would apply to individuals earning more than $280,000 and couples earning more than $350,000.

The surtax would be increased for individuals earning more than $400,000 and couples earning more than $500,000, and step up again for individuals earning over $800,000 and couples earning above $1 million. The precise extent of these increases has not been announced.

This looks like adding tax brackets, in effect. And we need to add tax brackets, especially at the higher end - I would like to see tax brackets at $3 million and $5 million as well. If you really want to stop the bonus culture on Wall Street, you tax income at the highest levels with brackets that discourage those lump sum payments over a certain level. A surtax like this will seem like a micropayment to people at this level, experiencing the lowest marginal tax rate in the history of America currently.

Like I said, I prefer the charitable deduction cap, but if this leads to emphasizing the importance of higher marginal tax brackets, I can live with it. And yes, this is true:

With this small tax bump for the relatively wealthy being proposed, look forward to the following bad press coverage:

Confusion between total and marginal tax rates.

Confusion between small business revenue and small business profits.

Stories about how in some places $350,000 isn't all that wealth. the way, I'll sign up for Club Wagner, too.

With this post, we announce the formation of Club Wagner. It’s a (fictional) organization of people willing to acknowledge a basic economic reality: Taxes in the United States must rise.

At their current levels, taxes are too low to cover the kind of government that Americans have made clear they want — a government that includes Medicare, Social Security, a strong military and numerous other programs.

Our club is named after Adolf Wagner, a 19th-century German economist who predicted that taxes would rise as societies became wealthier. “As people grew more affluent,” as the writer Matt Miller has explained Wagner’s Law, “they’d want more of what only government could provide — a strong military, public order, good schools and assorted welfare benefits, services that private citizens would have trouble arranging for on their own.”

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A Public Option Saves Money

Yesterday I detailed the fundamental contradiction of the Blue Dogs' complaints against health care reform. They want to find savings within the health care system because of concerns about cost, but simultaneously don't want to implement programs that would actually reduce costs. Now we have specific numbers that make this contradiction clear, as the Congressional Budget Office has scored the specific savings that would arise from a public health insurance option to compete with private insurers.

According to a pair of Capitol Hill sources, preliminary estimates from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that a strong public option--the kind that the House of Representatives is putting in its reform bill--should net somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 billion in savings over ten years.

The sources cautioned that these were only the preliminary estimates, based on previous discussions--that CBO had not yet issued final scoring on language in the actual bill. But the sources felt the final estimate would likely be close.

Exactly how the plan produces those savings is, obviously, a key question. The reason--well, a reason--centrists and conservatives don't like a public plan is that they fear it will use the government's bargaining leverage to force doctors, hospitals, and drugmakers to accept unfairly low reimbursements. Private insurance would go out of business, since they couldn't compete; meanwhile, providers and producers of medical care would struggle to stay afloat.

Advocates of a public plan (myself included) think those fears are overblown--and that there are ways to make sure a public plan doesn't have that effect. But if the CBO is scoring significant savings, then chances are the House version gives the public plan the kinds of power conservatives and centrists fear.

Ezra points out that this number could rise or fall depending on the structure of the public option itself. It seems fairly obvious to me that, the more available the public option is, and the larger it is inside the health insurance exchange where it will live, the more savings you can wring from it. Ezra also says the right thing about its impact:

If the $150 billion estimate is accurate, however, it's interesting proof of another point: the public insurance option is not the End of Days for private health insurers nor eternal salvation for consumers. Saving $150 billion over 10 years is saving $15 billion a year. On Wednesday, the hospitals voluntarily agreed to provide $155 billion in savings from reduced Medicare reimbursements. No one thought that a particularly big deal. It was probably a good thing, but it wasn't proof of final success or ultimate failure for health-care reform.

So too with the public plan. Conservatives saying that a policy that will save $15 billion a year will end American health care -- or, as Rep. Paul Broun would have it, "kill people" -- have jumped off the deep end. Liberals who have invested all their hopes in the public plan might also be a bit disappointed. The CBO score seems to imply the likeliest of all possible outcomes: The addition of a public insurance option is a good, but modest, change to the health-care system.

But a public option is a tent pole. It's a modest change that, at its best, would reverse some of the incentives from insurers on the individual market. And if successful, like any disruptive business model, it would lead to more fundamental changes in the market.

More to the point, changing the notion of the public option as a cost-cutting tool can knock down the attacks from fiscal conservatives, and also apply to other cost-cutting measures like comparative effectiveness research and bargaining down drug prices. The way to successfully pitch a health care overhaul is to emphasize the areas of cost control - particularly those that will cut INDIVIDUAL costs, not necessarily costs to the federal budget. "Why doesn't such-and-such Congressman want you to get cheaper drugs? Why doesn't he want your premiums to go down?"

When the President returns to the States and starts hitting the road to sell the plan, he needs to talk about cost, cost, cost.

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A Lawsuit Challenges The Two-Thirds Rule

It seems thirty years or so too late, but a former UCLA chancellor and director of the MOCA in Los Angeles named Charles Young filed suit against the provision in Proposition 13, passed in 1978, that requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise taxes. The legal theory behind the case mirrors the theory behind the attempted repeal of Prop. 8 this year, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

The legal theory of the suit, which names the Legislature's chief clerks as the technical defendants, is that when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, cutting property taxes and requiring a two-thirds vote for tax increases, it was a "revision" of the state constitution rather than an "amendment."

The constitution allows amendments to be made by initiative petition but allows revisions - generally a more fundamental change - to be made only through a constitutional revision commission or a constitutional convention.

It's essentially the same argument that opponents of Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that outlawed same-sex marriages, made in attempting to persuade the state Supreme Court to void that measure. But the court, which had earlier sanctioned same-sex marriages, ruled that Proposition 8 was valid.

I'm a bit surprised that Young didn't include the single-subject rule in his charges, as the property tax rules and the two-thirds requirement for taxes don't seem to bear much relationship to one another. Of course, that has already been argued before the state Supreme Court, along with the revision argument, equal protection concerns and about a half-dozen other charges, four months after passage, in Amador Valley, and the Supreme Court upheld the initiative. Here's the way the revision argument played out back then.

The California Supreme Court held that although Proposition 13 would result in various substantial changes to the constitution, it was only an amendment because the changes were narrowly tailored to the objective of changing the taxation system. Id. at 228. According to the Court, a change in the voting requirement did not amount to a revision of the constitution. The Court further stated it was not uncommon to have similar voting requirements for financial matters, and that the Proposition would not effect home rule. Id. The Court cited Article XIII, Section 20 of the State Constitution that authorizes the legislature to set maximum property tax rates. Id. at 228. The Court concluded this new article, implemented by Proposition 13, would be no more threatening to home rule than Article XIII, § 20. Id. The Court, while not endorsing the Proposition, did state the initiative process was a direct form of government from the people. Id. Finally, the court held that it would not limit the ability of people, through the initiative process, to achieve such a limited purpose of a new system of taxation. Id.

The Court upheld every aspect of Prop. 13 at that time, and the law has withstood multiple legal challenges over the years. Like with Proposition 8, the Court seems loath to overturn a vote of the people, and now we're 31 years down the road. Of course, this forms the core of Charles Young's argument, that the effects of Prop. 13 are powerful evidence that it is not merely an amendment, but a major revision affecting the lives of all California's citizens.

I'm skeptical that this can get off the ground, but I see little harm in it. And maybe putting Prop. 13 on trial, and laying out the effects in sharp detail, could lead to closing the loophole and building a sustainable revenue base.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Random Ten

Headed to the Angels-Yankees game tonight, so I'm wrapping up the day early.

Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim - Fountains Of Wayne
Hands In The Air - Girl Talk
The Winner - The Crystal Method
Drake - Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man
Begging You - Stone Roses
Get It Together - The Beastie Boys
Youth Culture Killed My Dog - They Might Be Giants
Politik - Coldplay (I don't like them, but I do like this song)
Naked Eye - Luscious Jackson
Here Comes Your Man - The Pixies

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The Stimulus Trap

Krugman today:

Normally, then, we expect policy makers to respond to bad job numbers with a combination of patience and resolve. They should give existing policies time to work, but they should also consider making those policies stronger.

And that’s what the Obama administration should be doing right now with its fiscal stimulus. (It’s important to remember that the stimulus was necessary because the Fed, having cut rates all the way to zero, has run out of ammunition to fight this slump.) That is, policy makers should stay calm in the face of disappointing early results, recognizing that the plan will take time to deliver its full benefit. But they should also be prepared to add to the stimulus now that it’s clear that the first round wasn’t big enough.

Unfortunately, the politics of fiscal policy are very different from the politics of monetary policy. For the past 30 years, we’ve been told that government spending is bad, and conservative opposition to fiscal stimulus (which might make people think better of government) has been bitter and unrelenting even in the face of the worst slump since the Great Depression. Predictably, then, Republicans — and some Democrats — have treated any bad news as evidence of failure, rather than as a reason to make the policy stronger.

Hence the danger that the Obama administration will find itself caught in a political-economic trap, in which the very weakness of the economy undermines the administration’s ability to respond effectively.

This does seem to be the case. When officials try to find solace in only 565,000 new jobless claims, the credibility gap expands. And so the White House gets caught in between calling zero-growth, no-recovery policies the greatest thing since sliced bread, while constrained by the opposition from doing anything to fix the very real problems in the economy. Joe Biden and Barack Obama should defend a stimulus that has barely gone out to the public. A world without one would certainly be worse, and the last two quarters of the year should see much more money reaching the economy.

But we have to be honest about what's happening here. Foreclosures remain unsustainably high, and the efforts to shrink them have simply failed to this point because lenders stubbornly refuse to rework loan terms. The Administration is trying desperately to fix this, but with no success. And even if they could fix it, increased joblessness would supplant bad loans and keep foreclosures at a similar level. Unemployment's rise also begets reductions in consumer spending because nobody has any money. And more real estate meltdowns can be expected. In this environment, with the economy out of the woods for depression but hurtling toward a long period of stagnancy, of course further stimulus efforts should be readied.

But never let it be said that this White House isn't planning to help those in need. Not the people, mind you; the banks:

As the financial system tries to right itself after its near-collapse last fall, the Treasury Department has assembled a team to examine what could yet bring it down and has identified several trouble spots that could threaten the still-fragile lending industry.

Informally known as Plan C, the internal project is focused on vexing problems such as the distressed commercial real estate markets, the high rate of delinquencies among homeowners, and the struggles of community and regional banks, said government sources familiar with the effort.

Part of the mission is assessing which firms are the most vulnerable and trying to decipher what assets these companies hold and whether they pose a danger to the wider financial system. Plan C is a small-scale, relatively informal approach to a problem the administration hopes to address in the long term by empowering the Federal Reserve to oversee systemic risk.

They take care of their own.

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Know-Nothings Stopping GOP Potential Victories

Chris Cillizza reported that Mark Kirk wouldn't run for the Senate seat in Illinois being vacated by Roland Burris. Roll Call has Kirk still mulling things over.

Here's the subtext, picked up by Cillizza:

It also followed a meeting of the Illinois Republican congressional delegation on Thursday in which his colleagues refused to back Kirk in a primary against Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna due, in large part, to his vote in favor of President Barack Obama's climate change bill.

Kirk's move makes McKenna the almost certain Republican nominee against either state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias or Merchandise Mart CEO Chris Kennedy next fall.

Because flat-earthers in the Republican Party don't believe in science, they cannot except anyone to the left of Attilla the Hun to represent them. Despite the fact that Kirk - and pretty much only Kirk - has a shot to win that Senate seat, as one of the Gang of Eight who voted for a modest, not-even-good-enough bill to begin the process of unboiling the planet, he is verboten from running.

We need a multi-party system in this country. Right now, we have liberals and conservatives smushed into the Democratic Party, and General Jack D. Ripper Bircher types in the other one.

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The Blue Dog Lament

As you may know by now, 40 members of the Blue Dog Caucus sent out a letter vowing to withhold their support for health care reform without what they call "significant changes." What's interesting about the letter is how insignificant the changes actually are. Among other things, they want:

• a deficit-neutral policy, which is what every single proposal for this bill has included;
• aggressive solutions to bending the cost curve, which also is a goal of pretty much everyone;
• protecting small businesses, which every iteration of the plan has, including the employer mandate proposals that exempt certain small businesses and make them eligible for purchasing health care through the insurance exchange;
• rural health equity, a pretty small point;
• a public option that doesn't use Medicare bargaining rates, which isn't different from what, for example, Chuck Schumer has called for, although I find that to be a toothless public option, which I'll explain later;
• time to read the bill, which I support;
• bipartisanship, which is the most ridiculous of these demands, but which actually does exist in the bill on the Senate side, where dozens of Republican amendments have been included in the HELP Committee markup.

So what's the problem here? Well, dig a bit deeper and you'll see. In short, the Blue Dogs want to reform the health care system without implementing things that would reform the health care system. They want to bend the cost curve and find savings from within the current system, yet they also want "rural health equity," which actually means spending more on rural health. That would INCREASE costs. Similarly, a separate letter signed by many Blue Dogs ask Henry Waxman to cancel plans to reinstate price controls on prescription drugs to help seniors. The entire point of Waxman's proposal is to plow savings from the current exorbitant prices paid to drug-makers back into the system. And finally, there's the matter of the public option. Here's the language in the letter:

We also wish to reiterate our support for the recommendations previously made by our coalition regarding how to appropriately structure a public option. In order to establish a level playing field, providers must be fairly reimbursed at negotiated rates and their participation must be voluntary. A "Medicare-like" public option would negatively impact hospitals, doctors and patients. Medicare reimbursement is on the average 20 to 30 percent lower than private plans and this inequity is even greater in some parts of the country. Using Medicare's below-market rates would seriously weaken the financial stability of our local hospitals and doctors.

So, they don't want a public option using Medicare reimbursement rates because they're 20-30% lower than private plans. Which means they want to spend 20-30% MORE on provider rates, while... controlling costs, somehow. The entire point of a public option would be to lower overall costs to individuals and government; a plan on a "level playing field" is just another non-profit with little leverage to change the overall dynamic. The Blue Dogs are just being incoherent.

You don’t save money by magic. You save money by spending less money. You can do that by just letting a large and growing number of people go without adequate health care. Or else you can do that by spending less money on overpayments, inefficient processes, and unnecessary treatments. But you can’t do that without taking a bite out of someone’s bottom line. The Blue Dogs seem to be looking for a free lunch, or else just grasping at straws for reasons to object to the bill.

I think it's the latter. Like with the effort in 1993, the Blue Dogs are inventing reasons to resist a health care overhaul. It's obvious from the contradictions in their argument.

But lurking behind all of these complaints, according to several sources I consulted Thursday evening, is a general wariness of taking a political plunge on health care. Like their counterparts in the Senate, House members don't like taking hard votes. Raising taxes, cutting spending, anything that takes money ouf of people's pockets--these are not things they want to do, even in the service of a greater, more popular cause.

And now they're getting nervous. They're seeing the president's popularity dipping, however incrementally. They're watching the Senate chase its tail over the same controversies. And having just taken what were--for many of them--similarly tough votes on an energy bill, they're not exactly thrilled about "walking the plank" again.

Never mind the literally clueless arguments from conservatives, or the complete hash from contrarians over health care - in the end, Democrats hold the fate of this bill in their hands. And lots of them don't want to face up to the fact that their concerns about costs are solved in this case by MORE progressive reforms, not less. It hurts their wittle feelings. And maybe they'll just use their go-to lament about bipartisanship, when the minority on this issue exists to prevent anything from being signed into law.

Fortunately, some Blue Dogs have spoken out on this issue in an intellectually coherent way. But unless more of them come around, this is how an overhaul will either be whittled down to nothing or just plain die - because so-called fiscal conservatives want to stick their fingers in their ears rather than face up to the facts.

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Nobody Could Have Predicted

The warrantless wiretapping program collected information through far more than warrantless wiretapping.

A new internal government report says President George W. Bush authorized secret intelligence activities shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that went beyond wiretapping without court orders.

Details of those activities remain classified, but are referred to in the newly released report as the President's Surveillance Program.

Practically everyone in the Bush Administration associated with this program, including John Ashcroft, George Tenet, Andrew Card, David Addington and John Yoo, all declined to be interviewed by the Inspectors General for this report. One of the only on-the-record sources for this report is cheerleader Michael Hayden, who as NSA Director when this program was enacted thinks it stopped multiple terrorist attacks (how reliable a narrator is he, really?). As a result we get a pretty murky picture of what exactly happened, with the additional intelligence gathering still classified, and each Inspector General working on the report hitting a wall of difficulty at assessing the effectiveness or even scope of the program. NSA talks it up, CIA wasn't read into the system (although, as Spencer Ackerman reports, they had a deeper role than at first thought), DoJ couldn't really asses it, the Director of National Intelligence has less of a clear idea as well.

There is this, from the report:

The DOJ OIG review concluded that several considerations favored initiating the process of transitioning the PSP (President's Surveillance Program) to FISA authority earlier than had been done, especially as the program became less a temporary response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and more a permanent surveillance tool (emphasis mine). These considerations included the PSP's effect on privacy interests of US persons, the instability of the legal reasoning on which the program rested for several years, and the substantial restrictions placed on FBI agents' access to and use of program-derived information due to the highly classified status of the PSP.

If I had to guess, I'd say all this mystery was intentional. Nobody really knew what was going on with the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the NSA, by design. The only ones who knew directed the policy, and they aren't talking. After the fact they desperately tried to keep the scope of the program a secret. The bottom line is that we still do not know the nature of the program, even after this IG report. Incidentally one Senator who voted for the FISA Amendments Act, which indemnified the telecoms and expanded the intelligence-gathering capabilities under FISA, said that as a consolation to civil libertarians, at least we would get a full accounting of the Bush-era program through this investigation.

His name was Barack Obama.


The Bush administration called its warrantless surveillance efforts “very, very important to protect the national security of this country,” in the words of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2005. Today’s Inspectors General report on the President’s Surveillance Program doesn’t really substantiate that assessment. “[M]ost PSP leads were determined not to have any connection to terrorism,” according to the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Former Bush administration officials gave the generic statement that the PSP was “of value,” to quote FBI Director Robert Mueller’s rather conspicuously understated judgment. But there’s no evidence given in the report about valuable contributions that the PSP uniquely provided to the counterterrorism fight, even when conceding that most of that stuff is classified.

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Pushback: SEIU Potential Walk-Out, Corporate Tax Cut Repeal, Court Overturns Medi-Cal Cuts

Rumors ran rampant yesterday that state employees, pushed too far by yet another salary cut (totaling 20% over the course of the year), would potentially strike.

Doug Crooks, Director of Communications with the Service Employees International Union’s local 1000, which represents more than 95,000 state employees, declined to confirm the rumor but said any decision would be made by the employees through an authorization vote.

“In the first place, that decision hasn’t been made yet,” said Crooks about the plan to strike. “That decision hasn’t been made yet. We are definitely going to strongly oppose and do everything we can to prevent the governor from imposing a fourth furlough day. But check back with me Monday.”

“The bottom line is we negotiated with this governor in good faith and we agreed on a contract that would save $340 million dollars immediately, and if applied to all state employees it would save the state a billion dollars. That’s billion with a ‘B.’ And for the governor to undermine that contract now is beyond irresponsible. He’s made the state employee a pawn” in the state budget negotiations.

“Well actually, it’s a five percent cut on top of those three furlough days,” explained Alicia Trost, a spokesperson for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. “It’s simply a scare tactic by the governor, yet another, and we feel the state workforce has already paid their fair share. What’s worse is that it would have a horrible effect on the economy if state workers were to lose up to 20 percent of their buying power.”

By the way, Mr. Stogie just lost a furlough case, with a judge tentatively ruling that he cannot furlough the legal staff of the State Compensation Insurance Fund, which has emboldened the larger pool of workers in SEIU. But more to the point, in the world of Arnold Antionette and the Yacht Party, workers making a median income getting 20% salary cuts while the largest corporations doing business in the state get a massive corporate tax break is considered "everyone paying their fair share."

Speaking of which, Lenny Goldberg offers the text of an initiative to repeal the negotiated-in-secret corporate tax cuts and save the state $2.5 billion dollars a year. Opponents typically respond with race-to-the-bottom rhetoric about businesses leaving the state, which isn't true, by the way.

Finally, a federal appeals court ruled that California cannot cut Medi-Cal reimbursements, in an opinion written by a George W. Bush appointee. The familiar pattern of breaking the law to cut the budget often runs up against judicial review, and so the criminals in Sacramento - considering what they're attempting, I don't consider that hyperbole - will have to try something else to achieve their long-sought destruction of the social safety net.

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Party-Switcher Blames Opponent For Not Being Partisan

A clumsy, lame attempt by Arlen Specter to box in Joe Sestak.

"Congressman Sestak is a flagrant hypocrite in challenging my being a real Democrat when he did not register as a Democrat until 2006 just in time to run for Congress," Specter said in the statement. "His lame excuse for avoiding party affiliation, because he was in the [military] service, is undercut by his documented disinterest in the political process."

This would be because then-Admiral Sestak was on active duty until February 2006, and it's fairly standard practice for active-duty members of the military, particularly in the officer class, to maintain political neutrality. I don't want ranking military personnel registered with a political party for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons. Here's Sestak's response:

We've learned today that Arlen Specter can abandon his party, but he just can't quit making Republican swift-boat attacks on the integrity of Democrats who served in our military.

Like Colin Powell (who was also registered as an Independent while he served), I believe that military officers should be nonpartisan. The military depends on cohesion and unity, and the defense of this nation must never be political. I'm proud that I was an Independent during my 35 years in the Navy, and I was proud to register as a Democrat as soon as I retired from active duty.

Let's be clear: I voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama while Arlen Specter was voting for George Bush and Bob Dole and John McCain. My question to Arlen Specter is this: do you regret voting for George Bush and John McCain? Why should Democrats support someone like you who actively campaigned - as recently as last year - for politicians with values like George W. Bush?

Needless to say, the very fact of Specter, who just switched parties a couple months ago, questioning the partisanship of anyone else is awkward, too.

Sestak needs to quit the Hamlet act and get in the race. But he's a much better campaigner than Specter, if this is any indication.

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The Creeping National Security State

This makes no sense:

The federal government's most secure prison has determined that two books written by President Barack Obama contain material "potentially detrimental to national security" and rejected an inmate's request to read them.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is serving a 30-year sentence at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., for joining al-Qaida and plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush. Last year, Abu Ali requested two books written by Obama: "Dreams from My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope."

But prison officials, citing guidance from the FBI, determined that passages in both books contain information that could damage national security.

Then I guess we'll have to track down all of the couple million copies sold worldwide and redact them, not to mention garbling the Grammy-winning books on tape.

Couple things here. First, somebody tell Republicans and skittish Democrats that there's an Al Qaeda member in a federal prison on US soil! Let the pants-piddling begin!

Second, this has basically become shorthand for any violations of civil liberties in the modern age - cite national security. There's no justification for the theory that someone confined to a solitary cell 23 hours a day can gain valuable insight to carry out attacks on the nation from a memoir written in 1996 and a campaign-era collection of policy papers. Seduced by secrecy, government officials use the threat of national security to convince themselves of any behavior under the sun. Shielding a book from a prisoner pales in comparison to torture or warrantless spying or whatever it is the CIA held from Congress all those years. But they have the same rationale, which is often uncritically accepted by political leadership and the media establishment. And everyone walks around in this daze, without challenging this constant invocation of national security for increasingly ridiculous actions.

As long as nobody rises to stop it, the ruling class can expand the national security state block by block until we live as we do today, in a fundamentally different country.

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The Long Uprising

After days of silence and a belief that the struggle had moved from the streets into the clerisy, citizens in Iran returned to protest on the 10th anniversary of the shutting of a reformist newspaper at Tehran University.

Iranian police have fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who defied government warnings that any fresh attempt at protests would be "smashed".

The marchers were heading towards Tehran University to commemorate the 10th anniversary of student unrest.

All gatherings have been banned in a crackdown on mass protests that erupted after the disputed election of 12 June.

The BBC's Jon Leyne says the opposition is trying to put momentum back into the campaign against the vote result.

Our correspondent says there were also a number of smaller demonstrations in major provincial cities.

Nico Pitney has the latest from today, including this truly insane bit of irony:

9:35 AM ET -- Iran criticizes Italy's suppression of protesters. "Iran summons the Italian Ambassador to Tehran Alberto Bradanini in protest against the violent suppression of anti-G8 protesters. Bradanini was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Friday to hear Tehran's concerns about the 'violent suppression of justice-seeking protesters by the Italian police.'" No comment.

The 1979 revolution started in 1978. Iranians have long memories and will simply wait out the ruling regime while chipping away at their legitimacy. This story has only begun.

Meanwhile, the installation of Ali Khamenei's son as head of the militia in Iran just shows the retrenchment of power and the subtle moves into dictatorship. In the end, this will not help Khamenei keep power.

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CA-45: Pougnet Has Big Fundraising Quarter

While candidates for state and federal office have until July 15 to announce their fundraising totals to the FEC, we're starting to see some of the numbers trickle out. And this is a pretty good one. Steve Pougnet, the openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, husband and father of two, reportedly raised over $200,000 in the second quarter. He claimed to have outraised his opponent, incumbent Mary Bono Mack, although the Republican has not yet released her numbers.

$200,000 is a better quarter than almost all Democratic challengers achieved at any point in the last Congressional cycle until the final fundraising quarter. It's particularly impressive this far out of the race.

With Bono Mack facing heat from her right flank over her vote for the Waxman-Markey energy bill, she may not have the kind of national backing she could need. Bono Mack has performed impressively in this seat throughout her career and she remains heavily favored, but Pougnet will have a chance in a district that went 52-47 for Barack Obama in 2008.

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Un-Signing The Signing Statements


The House rebuked President Obama for trying to ignore restrictions to international aid payments, voting overwhelmingly for an amendment forcing the administration to abide by its constraints.

House members approved an amendment by a 429-2 vote to have the Obama administration pressure the World Bank to strengthen labor and environmental standards and require a Treasury Department report on World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) activities. The amendment to a 2010 funding bill for the State Department and foreign operations was proposed by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), but it received broad bipartisan support.

The conditions on World Bank and IMF funding were part of the $106 billion war supplemental bill that was passed last month. Obama, in a statement made as he signed the bill, said that he would ignore the conditions.

They would "interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by directing the Executive to take certain positions in negotiations or discussions with international organizations and foreign governments, or by requiring consultation with the Congress prior to such negotiations or discussions," Obama said in the signing statement [...]

President George W. Bush had used signing statements to ignore a number of provisions in bills that he signed into law, frustrating Democrats in Congress. One Bush signing statement allowed the administration to ignore a provision banning the torture of terror detainees in situations threatening the nation's security.

Frank and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Texas) said that one way they could get presidents to stop issuing signing statements casting aside laws would be to refuse to fund their priorities. The amendment passed Thursday seeks to nullify Obama's signing statement by withholding funds from any agreement involving the Treasury Department that doesn't follow the conditions set out in the supplemental bill.

"The signal we send to the Treasury is very clear: Ignore statute at your peril," Kirk said.

As long as the executive is given a power, he or she will probably keep using it. It's up to the legislative branch to assert their authority. Of course this never happened with a Republican in the White House, as the GOP sees their role in those situations as human shields. But I really don't care about partisanship when it comes to reining in the runaway executive and restoring balance to the branches of government. Congress has a lot more power than they've been using over the years, and while this is a small point, I'm happy if it leads to signing statements going the way of the dodo bird.

...I was hinting at this, but David Waldman fleshes it out:

Pretty much as predicted, Congressional Democrats find their spine in standing up to expansive executive power as soon as there's a Democrat in the White House. Actually confronting a Republican president about it was apparently too politically difficult for them to contemplate. Why? Because Republicans would have voted against it, meaning that standing up for institutional prerogatives and the separation of powers is a politicized issue. It's "partisan bickering" when Democrats say this about Republican presidents, but "bipartisan agreement" when they say it about Democrats, because it's only when it's said about Democrats that Republicans agree that there ought to be a separation of powers.

Which of course means that such a separation only has a hope of existing as the founders intended when there's a Democrat in the White House. Which hasn't been all that often since the advent of the Nixonian "Imperial Presidency," mind you.

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Something Worse Than Torture?

The scariest thing about this Congress/CIA dispute is that whatever Leon Panetta admitted that the agency hid from Congress isn't yet known.

Four months after he was sworn in, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta learned of an intelligence program that had been hidden from Congress since 2001, a revelation that prompted him to immediately cancel the initiative and schedule a pair of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill.

The next day, June 24, Panetta informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the program and the action he had taken, according to Democratic and Republican members of the panels.

The incident has reignited a long-running dispute between congressional Democrats and the CIA, with some calling it part of a broader pattern of the agency withholding information from Congress. Some Republicans, meanwhile, privately questioned whether Panetta -- who has stood with CIA officers in a dispute with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- was looking to score points with House Democrats.

The program remains classified, and those knowledgeable about it would describe it only vaguely yesterday. Several current and former administration officials called it an "on-again, off-again" attempt to create a new intelligence capability and said it was related to the collection of information on suspected terrorists that was instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Congressional Republicans said no briefing about the program was required because it was not a major tool used against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They accused Democrats of using the matter to divert attention away from Pelosi's accusation that CIA officials intentionally misled her in 2002 about the agency's interrogations of suspected terrorists.

You have to love the good Germans in the Congressional GOP. As long as it had nothing to do with terrorism, it could be concealed from federally mandated oversight? First of all, that doesn't even seem right, given the hints in the article by officials that the secret program was run out of the CIA Counterterrorism Center. Second, whatever you want to say about Democrats, at least they know when to be outraged. Clearly, Republicans don't want to admit the wholly unsurprising conclusion that the CIA lies to Congress, because then Nancy Pelosi might be in for an apology. So they soft-pedal the program, which, since it's classified, cannot be revealed.

Sam Stein speculates that maybe we're talking about Seymour Hersh's executive assassination ring:

So what are the "significant actions" that these seven lawmakers insist were kept from Congress? Another theory being bandied about concerns an "executive assassination ring" that was allegedly set up and answered to former Vice President Dick Cheney. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, building off earlier reporting from the New York Times, dropped news of the possibility that such a ring existed in a March 2009 discussion sponsored by the University of Minnesota.

"It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently," Hersh said. "They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. ...

"Congress has no oversight of it," he added. "It's an executive assassination ring essentially, and it's been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths. Under President Bush's authority, they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That's been going on, in the name of all of us."

I do not believe that something which the CIA's own leadership didn't tell Panetta about until months into his tenure is simply benign. And at some point, this fresh horror will get out, another stain from the Bush regime. The White House cannot just ignore all this and expect it to go away.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Thousand Or So Words Of Despair On Health Care Reform

I may have dismissed the difficulties in paying for health care and the time frame a little prematurely. To be sure, it's a problem. Not the nature of the revenue ideas themselves - a surtax on the wealthy may work, although I'd prefer to go back to President Obama's idea to lower the charitable deduction, and Matt Yglesias explains why:

When possible, it’s better to raise money by broadening the tax base—curbing loopholes, deductions, and exemptions—than by simply raising the rates. The reason is that higher rates on a narrow base do a lot to encourage people to shift income into loopholes, which both undermines your revenue-raising efforts and also distorts the economy. Both the employer tax exclusion proposals and the itemized deductions proposal fit that good model.

The problem is that we're pretty far down the road on the various bills and we're still trying to figure out how to pay for it, which suggests to me that Congress doesn't want to make any hard choices on it. They have a bunch of ideas, but no real strategy. And they've taken the employer deduction off the table because unions don't want to give back what they already have, which makes sense for them but not necessarily the country.

One related point I'd make on this is that there is, in progressive circles, a tendency to confuse the interests of labor unions and the interests of progressivism. The two things often overlap. But they are not, in fact, the same. And that's okay. But this is very much one of those cases. The employer tax exclusion is regressive. It gives employers more power over workers. It reduces choices, fractures the system and increases health-care costs (which in turn decreases wages). Unions are protecting what they have, and that's their right. But protecting the employer-based health-care system, particularly at the expense of a regulated and integrated alternative, is not a terrifically progressive thing to do.

And without changing the incentives in health care and reversing the dynamic of doctors ordering more, insurance companies trying to pay for less and employers still paying the bulk of the costs in an inefficient way, we're not reforming health care. We're just expanding coverage and heading toward the same fiscal iceberg. Which is important in its own way, but not a full solution.

And meanwhile, as the timing of the bill slips, conservatives get emboldened and start running ads in the districts of key Senators. Blue Dogs and Conservadems get cold feet and start looking for ways to deep-six the bill. The problem in that case is that the answer to the Blue Dogs' entreaties would be more reform, which they don't want either.

The emerging bill "lacks a number of elements essential to preserving what works and fixing what is broken," 40 members of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate to conservative Democrats wrote in a letter to party leaders. To win their support, they said, any legislation would need to be much more aggressive in reining in the growth of health care.

A public option and capping the employer deduction would go a long way for that, but they're against that, too.

Meanwhile, the White House is making all these deals with stakeholders that may have strings attached that would preserve their revenue streams and fail to rein in health care costs. Take a look at this, for example:

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Industry representatives met at the White House Tuesday with officials to consider specifics of a cost-saving agreement the industry reached last month with health-care negotiators and to discuss other concerns that the pharmaceutical industry has with the larger health-care overhaul being considered by Congress. As a presidential candidate, President Barack Obama endorsed re-importation, an idea the industry opposes. White House officials have told the industry if the larger health care bill passes, the cost savings will be so great that reimportation will be unnecessary, according to Billy Tauzin, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America." Some of the pharmaceutical companies represented at the Tuesday meeting included Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc., Abbott Laboratories and AstraZeneca.

The Wall Street Journal notes: "Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said he disagrees with any move to drop the reimportation idea. He has pushed to import drugs from Canada, where they are cheaper because of price controls" (Mundy, 7/7).

Are we going to side-deal ourselves to death here? Will we assure medical equipment makers that we will not ensure comparative effectiveness research that would align costs with results instead of the mish-mash we have today? Will we deal with hospitals but leave the full picture of how they rein in costs unanswered? Who will decide the limits to the system, and the tough choices around end-of-life care, now managed by insurers?

The major problem we are running into with health care is that the political class is so obsessed with allowing everyone to keep what they have, and not putting enough emphasis on the system's unsustainable course, that they risk wringing all the benefit for real people out of the bill, and at that point, it can tip over and die.

This isn't terribly surprising: it's not obvious what health-care reform will do for the average American. I could give you a long answer about delivery system reforms and so forth because it's my job to know these things. But it would have to be a long answer. The basic structure of health-care reform has been specifically built to avoid changing people's existing arrangements. The hope was that Americans would be convinced that their health-care coverage wouldn't change for the worse. But that's also made it hard to explain why it will get better.

One of the president's health-care reform principles is that everyone must be able to keep what he or she currently has. But that means we're not really going to change, or improve, what they have. And that means they're not getting much in the way that's new. Higher taxes aren't buying them obvious benefits. Instead, they seem to be paying the health-care bills of poorer Americans.

If support for the overall effort were more robust, the polling on the tax exclusion would matter less. People are willing to pay for things they want to buy. But though they might abstractly favor health-care reform, it doesn't seem directly related to their lives.

This is the problem of liberalism since the Great Society - people don't feel like they're getting anything for their payments to government, because Democrats have stopped pushing for anything tangible for everyone. A reform constructed to expand coverage for the poor without something tangible for everyone - like a public option to bring down premium costs and not wed people to their job for the health benefits - just will not pass. It has no shot. Because the public needs convincing that they have something at stake in this reform.

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The End Of The Roland Burris Era

Roland Burris has decided not to run for election to the US Senate from Illinois. Also, from his jail cell, Charles Manson has passed on a Congressional run. And that guy who accidentally caught the ball to ruin the Cubs' World Series chances is begging off a run for Alderman of Wrigleyville.

All of these announcements have about the same element of surprise. Burris raised $845 in the first quarter of the year, and the rumor was that the second quarter wouldn't be much better. He'll go down in history as one of the oddest characters to wind up in the world's most deliberative body (by the way, they can be less deliberative, we won't mind).

So who will take his place in the Obama seat in the Senate? Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who would have been a lock, passed on the race, and moments later, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk jumped in. Kirk represents a moderate district and some in Illinois think he would be formidable for either State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias or Kennedy spawn Chris Kennedy. This could be a tough race for the Democrats, but Giannoulias' ties to the Obama Administration can hopefully help get him across the line.

I'll tell you, the news has not been hopeful for Democratic Senate races lately. Obviously there's lots of time and it'll all depend on the economy, but considering the state of the Republican Party and the number of seats the GOP has to defend, this cycle is starting to look like an opportunity lost.

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They should grant early release of the whole parole system

Today's LA Times story about a handful of prisoners released with 60 days or less remaining on their sentences probably raises hackles on the backs of the necks of the Tough on Crime crowd, but it really shows how fundamentally broken the state's prison system remains. Because look what the charges were on all of the prisoners released.

Reporting from Sacramento -- California prison officials, facing severe overcrowding and a financial crisis, have been granting early releases to inmates serving time for parole violations.

State officials said the dozens of prisoners set free from the California Institution for Men in Chino and from lockups in San Diego and Shasta counties had 60 days or less left on their terms, or had been accused of violations and were awaiting hearings. The releases were approved by the state parole board.

At least 89 inmates have been freed or approved for early release during the last two months. Others have been sent to home detention, drug rehabilitation programs or similar alternative punishments.

It's not an anomaly to see just 89 inmates charged with parole violations. In fact, more than two-thirds of all prisoners admitted to state prisons in 2007 commit the crime of violating parole guidelines. This is at least twice as many as virtually any other state.

On average, the nation's state and federal prisons took in almost two new offenders for every parole violator, but in California, the reverse is true. In 2007, California prisons took in 139,608 inmates and 92,628 of them were parole violators, almost a 2-1 ratio. In only one other state, Washington, did parole violators outnumber those being jailed by the courts, and that was only by 126 inmates.

If Arnie Antionette were truly talking about reform instead of policies that destroy the social safety net, he'd talk about completely overhauling a parole system that is clearly too constrictive, that fails Californians and makes us all less safe. When you warehouse 170,000 inmates in jails that only fit 100,000, you turn them into institutes of higher learning for violent crime instead of rehabilitation centers. In addition to the cost of overtime for parole officers and prison guards, the costs to the criminal justice system naturally increase with the revolving door for inmates, not to mention the societal and human costs.

Unfortunately, we don't have a reform agenda in this state, just a bunch of lawmakers trying to get across the line to the next budget, to the next election. If there was such a thing as innovation and leadership we would have revamped this failed parole policy long ago.

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The Ultimate Coda


Al Franken, after being sworn in as the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate, goes back to his office and shuffles through his mail, and he finds a $96,000 check from the Minnesota Republican Party that Norm Coleman's campaign owed him as part of the "loser pays" laws in the Land of 1,000 Lakes. And there's even an extra $872 in interest.

Franken chuckles as we CRANE SHOT out....


Sadly, I think we'd like it all better if the movie ended there, rather than having to watch the horror show of what this group of Democrats will do with that 60-vote majority.

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An Aggressive Strategy

As the Governor has tried to hijack the budget crisis to serve his own ends of punishing union workers and shredding the social services net, over the last couple days we've seen Democrats fighting back. For example, Dean Florez surgically took apart the Governor's idiotic smear attempt on legislators for doing their job of legislation. Considering that the Governor has never invited all 120 lawmakers into his smoking tent for a pow-wow, I think there's room for multitasking here. But understanding that would involve basic knowledge about how government works, as Florez said:

Assembly bill 606 creates a commission to serve the marketing interests of the blueberry industry. Another bill defines "honey" to mean the natural food product resulting from the harvest of nectar by honey bees, and a third bill adopts regulations establishing definitions and standards for 100-percent pomegranate juice.

"Look, we're pro-condiment, we're pro-fruit, but the focus needs to be on the budget crisis," McLear said.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Fresno) called Governor Schwarzenegger's criticism "childish" and said he is fed up.

"The governor's turned from an action hero into just another politician," Senator Florez said. "He should really, really take a course on fundamental government on how the legislature works."

"The fact that he doesn't understand these things worries me," he added.

Asm. Nancy Skinner held a press event with small business owners, again using the imagery of Arnold Antionette smoking a stogie in his Jacuzzi to contrast with the state's struggles:

Skinner called a news conference at the corner of Solano Avenue and The Alameda in Berkeley, outside the vacant storefront formerly occupied by A Child’s Place. Near her podium was a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a cigar in his mouth, with the headline “While the state drowns in IOUs ARNOLD DOESN’T CARE” and featuring a quotation from this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article on the governor’s method of coping with the stress of the budget crisis: “I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight. I’m going to lay back with a stogie.”

Skinner said that’s pretty cheeky talk for a governor who nixed bills that would’ve helped solve the state’s cash crisis, avoided the need for the IOUs now going out and kept the deficit from growing by another several billion dollars. And it’s particularly distasteful, she said, to small businesses that are struggling through this recession even as Schwarzenegger proudly talks about vetoing a plan to collect sales tax from large online retailers doing business through California-based affiliates.

You can debate AB 178, the plan to collect sales tax on affiliate sales (I don't sell enough in affiliate sales to have much skin in the game, but there are decent arguments on both sides), but aligning with small business to attack a supposedly business-friendly Governor has good optics.

For the wonks, the Assembly produced an analysis of the Governor's so-called "reform" agenda, showing that most of it would be completely irrelevant to the current budget year, and all of it uses math that magically eliminates implementation costs but assumes outrageously oversized savings years down the road. These are cuts to social services pretending to be reform. I guess it's a step up from completely eliminating programs like CalWorks, but it's fundamentally dishonest.

Moments after the Governor's press conference yesterday about CalWorks "reform" (fact-checked here by the CBP), welfare advocates held their own press event that made most of the news items:

"I've never liked when people pick on the poor because they haven't got the ability to fight back," said John Burton, the state Democratic Party chairman and former Senate leader known as a fierce advocate for the poor. "It's a Republican syndrome. It isn't tough for Republicans to beat up on poor people. When finances are terrible, they go after the poor and blame the poor. Republicans constantly use that and don't worry about all the benefits government gives to businesses." [...]

Welfare advocates countered that nearly two-thirds of recipients are working or participating in training, and that half are making some kind of income. They also said that the governor's own May revised budget proposal estimated an annual savings of $100 million with that reform.

"He's reinforcing negative stereotypes and scapegoating people for the failure of his own administration," said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. "It's a reflection of a bully mentality, to go after the problems of struggling families when he doesn't get his way. The last thing those families need is to have a powerful figure accuse them of fraud, of not trying."

Furthermore, the CA Democratic Party has collected budget horror stories to highlight the human cost of the crisis. Here's one picked at random:

I am on Social Security Disability and with the amounts allowed to get SSI having been cut, it has also cut my income. Also, my medical coverage is being hit as well as so many of the social programs all of us depend on. Fortunately, I am not homeless yet, but it is a good possibility. I just do not understand how you could make all Californians suffer, especially those of us who are very low income, in favor of giving a huge tax break to oil and tobacco. This is not just or right and I believe that the solution is to sign the compromise bill, and tax the big corporations that are not now paying their fair share! – Christine, Victorville

The structural barriers in the state are so high that I'm not sure any of this can work. One thing is certain, however - this aggressive strategy creates energy in the grassroots, inspires changes to the system and can leverage public opinion far better than desperately seeking some compromise behind closed doors.

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Genetically Modified GM

In just a little over a month, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of GM to essentially itself, which took effect in a record amount of time.

General Motors Corp. sped toward a record-short escape from bankruptcy protection Thursday when a judge's order approving the sale of most of its assets to a new company went into effect.

The order, delayed four days to allow time for appeals, became effective despite a last-minute appeal from plaintiffs in an Arizona product liability case against GM involving a Chevrolet Malibu.

GM spokeswoman Julie Gibson said U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber's order allowing the sale became effective at 12 p.m. EDT. GM lawyers are working on paperwork to close the sale as quickly as possible, after which GM would leave bankruptcy protection.

Once the world's largest and most powerful automaker, GM will become a leaner and greener company, cleansed of debts and burdensome contracts that nearly dragged it into liquidation.

But it faces brutal international competition and the worst auto sales market in more than 25 years.

Emerging from bankruptcy in 39 days, considering the size of the company and the nature of the tangle of debt, is pretty remarkable. Some predicted 6 months.

The question becomes, "Now what?" Nobody's buying cars, and GM still has some significant legacy costs, particularly in that little thing called health care, which we want to reform so American businesses can actually compete on a global stage. Sadly, keeping the employer-based system largely intact won't do much for GM. Sadly, I don't think Congress is taking into account the importance of how what we'll see on the other side of the health care debate can help businesses and manufacturing.

...the geniuses in Congress want to reverse the closing of thousands of auto dealerships, saddling GM and Chrysler with costs they cannot possibly manage and basically kissing billions of taxpayer dollars goodbye. Great move, guys!

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