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Obama's Stimulus Steps Hint at Future Lobbying Reform?

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 4:13 PM EDT

Speaking today to the National Conference of State Legislatures, President Obama placed some stiff new restriction on stimulus lobbying:

Decisions about how Recovery Act dollars are spent will be based on the merits. Let me repeat that: Decisions about how Recovery money will be spent will be based on the merits.

They will not be made as a way of doing favors for lobbyists. Any lobbyist who wants to talk with a member of my administration about a particular Recovery Act project will have to submit their thoughts in writing, and we will post it on the Internet for all to see. If any member of my administration does meet with a lobbyist about a Recovery Act project, every American will be able to go online and see what that meeting was about. These are unprecedented restrictions that will help ensure that lobbyists don't stand in the way of our recovery.

These are great new rules, and any good government crusader would support them. The only question: why can't this be the standard for all executive branch lobbying?

The White House put out a memo today titled "Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds." It provides details on the lobbying restrictions above. It also includes a funny little quirk -- I'll add that below.

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Angola 3 Prisoner Herman Wallace Moved to New Prison

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 2:21 PM EDT

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has transferred Herman Wallace, who has spent more than three decades in solitary confinement in the state's notorious Angola prison, to another prison in the state, Mother Jones has learned. Wallace is a member of the so-called Angola 3, a group of prisoners who spent decades in solitary after being convicted of prison murders based on questionable evidence. The prolonged confinement of Wallace and fellow Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox is the subject of a civil habeaus corpus suit charging Angola with cruel and inhuman punishment. Wallace's transfer follows stories by NPR and Mother Jones raising questions about the evidence and witness testimony used to convict Wallace and Woodfox of the 1972 murder of Angola prison guard Brent Miller.

According to one of Wallace's lawyers, Nick Trenticosta, prison officials moved Wallace unexpectedly--and without informing his attorneys-- on Wednesday night to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabrielo, Louisiana. Hunt is used as both a permanent prison and as a way station where prisoners are evaluated before being sent on to other facilities. Wallace's defense team has been scrambling to contact their client, though they have been told by corrections officials that they won't be able to speak with him until next week. (Corrections officials at Angola did not return a call for comment).

Federal Magistrate Judge Docia L. Dalby, in a decision rebuffing the state of Louisiana's attempt to dismiss the civil case, describes the decades of solitary confinement endured by Wallace and Woodfox as "durations so far beyond the pale that this court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence." In a 2008 deposition in the suit, Angola Warden Burl Cain claimed the men had been held in solitary for so long due in part to their association with the Black Panther party.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 March 2009

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 2:15 PM EDT
On the left, Inkblot is worried that Congress will consider him a fat cat and tax his evening dinner bonus away.  I told him it actually counts as straight salary in his case, so no worries.  On the right, we have a rare shot of Domino actually walking somewhere.  It's not that she never does this, just that it's hard to take a picture of it since she instantly makes a beeline for the camera if she sees it pointed in her direction.  This time I caught her just in time.

Debt, Debt, Debt

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:54 PM EDT
The Congressional Budget Office released some new numbers today and the White House had this to say:

Responding to today’s new, more pessimistic CBO scoring of the president’s budget in light of the deteriorating economic situation, Peter Orszag was at pains to emphasize that deficit projections are highly sensitive to relatively small changes in assumptions. For example, suppose that first you project revenues of $100 and spending of $103 for a $3 deficit. Then you get some bad news about the economy so projected revenue drops by five percent. Well, suddenly you’re looking at a deficit of $8. The alarming way to put this is that the deficit has nearly tripled. The calm way is that revenue has fallen by 5 percent.

Well, yes, deficit projections are highly sensitive to small changes in assumptions, which is why presidents traditionally tweak their assumptions to produce rosy economic projections.  It doesn't take much.  Obama and Orszag actually did this less than most administrations in their initial budget proposal, I think, but they still did it.  And now it's coming back to bite them since, in fact, the alarming way of looking at this is also the correct one.

Now, given the current state of the economy, a larger deficit might be a feature, not a bug.  But if the deficit stays above 4% of GDP for an entire decade, as the CBO suggests, then we have a problem.  We can't keep that up forever any more than Wall Street could keep the subprime bubble going forever.  Someday we're going to pay.

Video: Chasing Campaign Cash in DC

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

What happens when you try to visit every campaign fundraiser held in Washington DC in a single day? You get turned down at lot, and you realize that lawmakers don't spend as much time slaving away over issue briefs as you might think. From the American News Project:

The way fundraising bastardizes the work of Congress is one of the things that Robert Kaiser, who wrote So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, talked about in an interview with Mother Jones.

MJ: You write about the way in which the increasing need to raise money has changed the day-to-day activities of congressmen. Talk a little about that.

RK: This is one of the things I simply did not know about before doing the reporting for this book. The members now routinely spend a day, sometimes two days a week—all the time, all year around, election year or no election year—on the telephone calling potential donors, pleading for money. It's a demeaning enterprise, and I think it has an impact on weaning out a lot of people who might consider running for Congress [but don't] once they find out they have to do this every week for the rest of their lives.

Kaiser made it clear that lawmakers, particularly members of the House who have to run for reelection every two years, are raising money, traveling, or attending campaign events so often than they only work about three days a week. Just another argument for public financing of campaigns.

Iraqi Family Sues Blackwater For War Crimes

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:55 PM EDT
Lawyers representing the widow and two children of an Iraqi vice-presidential guard allegedly murdered by a drunken Blackwater contractor filed suit today in a California court, charging Blackwater (recently renamed "Xe") with war crimes, assault and battery, wrongful death, and evidence tampering. The plaintiffs contend that security contractor Andrew Moonen got drunk at a 2006 Christmas party in the Green Zone, stumbled off and got lost, and then fired shots at 32-year old Raheem Khalaf Sa'adoon, a security guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Raheem Khalaf, "killing him for no reason."

In a press release announcing the lawsuit, plaintiff attorney Susan Burke describes the shooting as "part of a pattern of illegal Xe-Blackwater shootings around the globe," while her colleague William Gould says that "Blackwater's clever new name cannot obscure the legal consequences of the company's use of excessive and deadly force on innocents."

For a timeline of Blackwater's activities in Iraq, click here.

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Happy New Year

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:18 PM EDT
President Obama, showing his command of YouTube once again, wishes the Iranian people a happy Nowruz:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders.  We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice.  The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

Unsurprisingly, the initial reaction from Iranian leaders wasn't very enthusiastic.  But it's still a constructive gesture.  Symbols matter, and they make the substance a little easier to address when the time comes to talk substance.  I just hope they got the Persian subtitles right.

Taxing the Bonuses

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 11:55 AM EDT
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but by yesterday I'd gotten so tired of the AIG story that I barely even noticed the details of the House bill to claw back all the bonuses.  But it's a monster.  Taxing the million-dollar bonuses is one thing — I may be a little ambivalent about that, but overall I don't think it's all that problematic — but the bill that passed last night taxes away bonuses from anyone with a household income over $250,000.  That's a couple of mid-level analysts.  This is likely to hit tens of thousands of fairly ordinary workers who had nothing to do with AIG's troubles and who simply don't deserve this kind of treatment.

A friend of mine who describes herself as "Marxist at heart" but has nonetheless been trying to convince me all along that the tax clawback idea is a horrific idea, points me to this article in the Post today about how AIG employees are reacting to the death threats and armed security guards in the parking lots:

A sense of fear hung in the room -- the palpable, unsettling kind that flashes across people's eyes. But there was anger, too. No one would express it publicly, of course. Who wants to hear a wealthy financier complain? And yet, within those walls off Danbury Road lies a deep sense of betrayal — first by their former colleagues, now by their elected leaders.

The handful of souls who championed the firm's now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.

"They've chosen to throw us under the bus," said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "They have vilified us."

They say what is missing from this week's hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm's former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.

So AIG stepped in with an offer to employees of Financial Products. Work through all of 2008, and you'd get a lump payment in March 2009. Stick around through 2009, and you'll get paid through 2010. Almost all other forms of compensation — bonuses, deferred payments and the like -- have vanished.

"People are trying to do the right thing," the same Financial Products executive said. "Guys have worked their [tails] off to try to get value for the taxpayer. This isn't money that's being advanced to us. People have performed the work and done it exactly as we asked them to do."

I don't know what the Senate will do with the House language, but they simply can't leave it the way it is.  A high marginal rate on million-dollar bonuses at bankrupt companies is one thing, but putting huge swathes of their professional staff in the same boat is another.  If this is where populist outrage is taking us, it's time for a timeout.

Now This is Sisterhood

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 11:35 AM EDT

Remember the Pakistani woman ordered gang-raped in 2002 because her brother had improper relations with a girl from another clan? Never mind that even that heinous justification was a frame job meant to hide the fact that he'd been gang-raped by that other clan—check this out.

Not only has this sister refused to commit suicide like most rape victims due to the associated stigma. Not only did she press charges and go on to live a very public life in which "she runs several schools, an ambulance service and women's aid group while having written an autobiography. By marrying, she has defeated another stigma against rape victims" who live as outcasts. Until they kill themselves.  That's right-I'm applauding her for marrying. As a second wife, no less. Well, I'm not applauding her for marrying (unless it was her choice) but for why and how she married.

From the NYT:

Mr. Gabol [her new husband] was one of a group of police officers deployed to protect her after she was threatened by the rapists’ relatives to try to stop her from pressing charges.
Mr. Gabol had a hard time persuading Ms. Mukhtar to marry. He had been calling her off and on since 2003 but formally proposed a year and a half ago, she said. "But I told my parents I don't want to get married."
Finally, four months ago, he tried to kill himself by taking sleeping pills. "The morning after he attempted suicide, his wife and parents met my parents but I still refused," Ms. Mukhtar said...Mr. Gabol then threatened to divorce his first wife, Shumaila. Ms. Shumaila, along with Mr. Gabol’s parents and sisters, tried to talk Ms. Mukhtar into marrying him, taking on the status of second wife. In Pakistan, a man can legally have up to four wives. It was her concern about Ms. Shumaila, Ms. Mukhtar said, that moved her to relent.
I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman," Ms. Mukhtar said. "She is a good woman."
In the end, Ms. Mukhtar put a few conditions on Mr. Gabol. He had to transfer the ownership of his ancestral house to his first wife, agree to give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend of roughly $125.
Asked if she had plans to leave her village to live with her husband in his village, Ms. Mukhtar said no. "I have seen pain and happiness in Meerwala. I cannot think of leaving this place." Her husband, she said, "can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient."

Something tells me he better not be expecting to get any.

One Way to Avoid the Stimulus Bill's Bonus Loophole...

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 11:33 AM EDT
The Sunlight Foundation points out that if Congress wants to avoid unpleasant surprises about Wall Street bonus loopholes in federal legislation, a good way to start would be to give lawmakers, the public, and watchdog groups 72 hours to read a bill before lawmakers have to vote on it. I agree. Seems like common sense, no?