Obama Needs To Get Outside the Beltway

President Barack Obama needs to get outside the Beltway.

Not necessarily by hopping on Air Force One (which he has yet to use), but by reaching out to the millions of Americans who are rooting for him in order to obtain their active support for his economic stimulus plan. In the first fortnight of his presidency, Obama has mainly played an inside game, as he has tried to win congressional approval of an economic recovery package. When the nearly $900 billion measure was being considered in the House, Obama largely deferred to House Democrats, who shoved many long-yearned-for spending initiatives into the bill. Thus, a 647-page creature was born, which included provisions easy for Republicans and conservatives to deride and oppose.

No Census for You, Sen. Gregg

The 2010 census is a mess. As I reported as part of a larger December 2008 story on the federal bureaucracy's failings, the census is on the Government Accountability Office's "High-Risk List" due to "performance deficiencies and uncertain, escalating costs." Doing the census right is particularly important for Democrats and their constituencies — a badly performed census traditionally does a inadequate job of counting minorities and the poor, who tend to be more transitory than the average American. Undercounting comes back to haunt these groups when the census is used to divvy up federal aid and draw electoral districts.

So it's important to have someone in charge of the census who is sensitive to these matters. Well, where is the Census Bureau located? In the Department of Commerce, soon to be headed by Sen. Judd Gregg, a conservative Republican who once voted to defund the department he will now lead.

Digital Divide: Winners and Losers in the Switch to DTV

In order to keep some 6.5 million TV screens from going dark two weeks from now, both houses of Congress have voted to postpone the deadline for a changeover from analog to to digital television transmissions, from February 17 to June 12. The president had been pushing for the postponement, and after some stalling from peevish Republicans, he got it. It remains to be seen whether the new deadline will provide enough time to resolve what has by now become a completely failed government program–another parting gift from the Bush administration, which managed to raise federal incompetence to new levels, while always seeming to shaft the nation’s most vulnerable people.

According to a January report from the Congressional Research Service, the changeover will be hardest on “low-income, elderly, disabled, non-English speaking, minority, and rural populations.” The DTV switch has become one of those events that throw into especially sharp contrast the dividing lines between the haves and the have-nots. In this case, the line separates people who can afford to shell out for cable or satellite—or a spiffy new digital TV–and people who can’t, instead depending on over-the-air broadcasts to an older, analog television set. Only the latter group will cease to receive transmissions when digital-only service goes into effect, unless they have a properly installed “converter box.” Many of these same people, of course, also lack the resources to purchase and install the needed equipment, which is far from the effortless process featured in public service ads. But there are winners as well as losers in this dramatic relaunch of America’s favorite pasttime.

You take a Monday off, and when you come back, it's like you've emerged into the all-Malkovich world in Being John Malkovich, except it's all Christian Bale, all the time. The Batman actor and apparent douchebag was recorded giving an extended, profanity-filled hard time to the director of photography on his current film project, Terminator Salvation, and the audio was leaked to the media, who immediately whipped themselves into a frenzy like piranhas tossed a bloody steak. But I don't blame the media! Clearly, all humans were suddenly obsessed with this (long) moment of (extremely) inappropriate work behavior. Friends started e-mailing me about it, techno remixes started appearing, Rod Blagojevich referenced Bale in another surreal TV appearance.

TPM reports that Sen. Tom Coburn has introduced an amendment to the stimulus bill that would prevent any spending on "zero-gravity chairs," "rotating pastel lights," or "dry heat saunas." This isn't the first time the Oklahoma Republican has gone after such taxpayer-funded frivolities. In all the hullabaloo over earmarks, it's worth remembering that members of Congress can also slip what might be called anti-earmarks into legislation. We recently collected some classic examples of these "inappropriations," including Coburn's earlier attempt to reign in an outbreak of relaxation at the CDC, which had blown money on the aforementioned zero-g chairs, pastel lights, and saunas. No doubt a few more proposals to restrict who gets stimulus dollars will surface before the Senate's done. And one anti-earmark in the House version of the bill is now moot—the one barring Illinois from receiving a single cent until Rod Blagojevic is no longer governor. 

Corn on Hardball: How Detached From Reality Is Cheney? (Video)

Dick Cheney is the gift (for pundits) that keeps on giving:

A Quote from Dick Cheney That Says It All

There's one quote from Dick Cheney's interview with Politico that says it all:

We did worry about [the economy], to some extent.

To some extent.

A Question About Bipartisanship

If you can't buy a vote on the stimulus package by giving a guy a cabinet secretaryship, how can you do it? And is this a sign that no matter how Obama reaches out to congressional Republicans, they are going to oppose him in order to make him and his promises of a new bipartisan era in Washington look foolish?

Madoff Whistleblower Tells Congress He Feared For His Life

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Harry Markopolos is the independent financial fraud investigator, who, over a period of nine years, tracked Bernie Madoff's $50-billion Ponzi scheme, screaming to the heavens when no one would listen. Testifying this morning before the House Financial Services Committee, he took an opportunity to speak directly to the Russian mafia and other organized crime figures who lost billions when Madoff's hedge fund imploded. "I'm the good guy here!" he said, eager to have them understand that he was only protecting their investments from a financial predator. Madoff's victims in the US tended to be Jewish ("Ponzi schemes are first and foremost an affinity fraud," says Markopolos), whereas overseas he preyed on mafiosi, royal families, blue-blooded aristocrats, and the nouveaux riche. (It's interesting to note that his victims also indirectly included Iraqi refugees.)

Markopolos is used to living with danger. A former Army Special Forces operator, he told Congress that he and his small team of volunteers have all feared for their lives at various points during almost a decade of building a case against Madoff. His testimony (.pdf) reads like a John le Carré spy novel, detailing how he and three other independent investigators secretly conspired against huge odds and physical dangers to bring down one of the worst white-collar criminals in American history. "If Mr. Madoff was already facing life in prison, there was little to no downside for him to remove any such threat," Markopolos said. "Neither my team nor I had any personal knowledge of Mr. Madoff or his psychological make up. As such we had only the conclusions of our investigation into his fund to surmise of what he may have been capable. We did know, however, that he was one of the most powerful men on Wall Street and in a position to easily end our careers or worse."

Let's Wait and See on the Wall Street Pay Limitations

I asked Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and one of the in-house economists for the bloggy left, for his thoughts on the White House's new limitations on executive compensation at bailed out banks. (Times article here, full text of the new rules here.) I was pleased as punch by the announcement when it broke last night. "Finally," I thought, "an end to these massive bonuses and ridiculous perks."

Not so fast, says Baker. There are still some details to hammer out:

We will have to see the details of how this policy is implemented. Restricting the pay of executives at banks who are receiving taxpayer dollars to stay afloat is certainly appropriate. The real question is how widely will it be applied within a bank and how will it be determined that banks are subject to these restrictions.