2009 - %3, January

Mining Reform

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 2:11 PM EST

jb_reform_fortyniners_1_e.gif
Today, Nick Rahall (D-WVA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is expected to introduce a bill to end the last big giveaway of the West's public property: the General Mining Law of 1872. Passed during the Grant Administration, the law allows mining companies to remove gold, copper and other hard-rock minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. Rahall's bill will be at least the 15th time that Congress has tried to add a leasing or royalty provision to the law, but the search for government revenue in the midst of the financial crisis, combined with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, gives the effort a fighting chance of passing this year.

So how much money is at stake? The Pew Campaign for Responsible mining today released a report estimating that outdated mining rules will cost the treasury $1.6 billion over the next decade. But I've looked at the numbers myself, and that figure seems like a gross underestimate. Past studies have shown that royalties on hard-rock minerals would be worth $100 to $200 million a year. Then there's the depletion allowance, a tax loophole that allows mining companies to deduct up to a fifth of their gross revenues. In 2001 the Clinton Administration valued the depletion allowance at $265 million on public lands alone, and in 1980 the government valued it on all mining lands at $1.75 billion. None of these figures are adjusted for inflation. So conservatively, the 10-year loss to the Treasury from outdated mining policies is more like $7 billion. Though that still might not seem like much in the bailout era, it adds up. The total losses due to the depletion allowance and the 137-year-old mining law are probably on the order of $100 billion--easily worth a bank bailout or two.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

House Election Finale

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 1:34 PM EST

HOUSE ELECTION FINALE....Via Open Left, the unofficial final vote counts for the 2008 congressional election are here. Here's how the House race turned out:

  • Two-party popular vote: Democrats 55.5%, Republicans 44.5%.

  • House seats won: Democrats 59%, Republicans 41%.

Bottom line: Dems won the two-party vote by 11 percentage points, but won the race for congressional seats by 18 percentage points. That's a pretty big divergence by recent historical standards. I wonder if Democrats can hold on to it?

Geithner's Second Move Not So Good

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 1:31 PM EST

Give me a break. Last week, we heard that Obama's revolving door restrictions (which I applauded) would be bypassed for the new No. 2 man in the DOD, who as recently as 2008 had been chief lobbyist for Raytheon, a massive defense contractor.

Now we're hearing that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is making a recent lobbyist for Goldman Sachs named Mark Patterson his chief of staff. Less than a year ago, Patterson was going to Congress and the Treasury to pimp Goldman's interests. Now he'll play a pivotal role in handing out TARP funds to Goldman and others. How is this not an obviously impermissible conflict?

What makes this so bizarre is that Geithner just banned the use of TARP funds for lobbying purposes. (He literally did this earlier this morning.) He understands the... unhelpful role that lobbying can play when trying to make solid, untainted policy that is in the best interest of the public. And yet, somehow, he's decided to make Patterson his chief of staff. And somehow, Obama is letting him.

How many waivers until the revolving door rules become meaningless? And why issue rules in the first place if the administration has the right to disobey them whenever it deems necessary?

Yet More Climate Change Bad News

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 1:14 PM EST

YET MORE CLIMATE CHANGE BAD NEWS....Today brings yet more news that global warming is worse than we think it is:

Even if by some miracle the nations of the world could bring carbon dioxide levels back to those of the pre-industrial era, it would still take 1,000 years or longer for the climate changes already triggered to be reversed, scientists said Monday.

....Over the long haul, the warming will melt the polar icecaps more than had previously been estimated, raising ocean levels substantially, the report said.

And changes in rainfall patterns will bring droughts to the American Southwest, southern Europe, northern Africa and western Australia comparable to those that caused the 1930s Dust Bowl in the U.S.

...."The policy relevance is clear: We need to act sooner, even if there is some doubt about exactly what will happen, because by the time the public and policymakers really realize the changes are here, it is far too late to do anything about it," [said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research].

James Inhofe and Rush Limbaugh say this is all just a big hoax. But they'll be dead before the worst of the changes hit, so I guess they don't really have to care, do they?

Honeymoon Politics

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 12:32 PM EST

HONEYMOON POLITICS....Matt Yglesias comments on the likelihood that Democrats are going to drop contraceptive funding from the stimulus bill:

As with a lot of Democratic concessions on the bill thus far, what seems to be missing is the "pro quo." Where are the members of the House saying "yesterday I was inclined to vote 'no' on this, but thanks to this change I'm voting 'yes.'" Bargaining is smart. I even think magnanimity on the part of a new majority is smart. But when you bargain, you get something. And I don't see what Obama's gotten for his business tax cuts nor do I see what he's getting for selling out low-income women's access to contraceptives.

I guess there's no telling on this. Maybe Obama will surprise us and get his 80 votes in the Senate after all. Or maybe the "concessions" Democrats have made so far have been things they didn't really care much about in the first place. And I guess there could also be some political benefit in making a bunch of compromises, getting no Republican support, and then being able to sell a story to the media about how the GOP caucus is still just a bunch of Rove-era dinosaurs hopelessly stuck in the hyperpartisan past. We did everything we could, but they just wouldn't budge. Very sad.

At least, I hope one or more of these things is true, since it would mean there's at least some thinking going on about this stuff. My real guess, though, is that Obama and the Dems are still living in a fantasy world. "How long do you think Obama's honeymoon will last?" Marian asked me last night. "Honeymoon?" I shook my head. "I don't think he ever had one." At least, that's pretty much how it looks to me.

Geithner's First Move a Good One

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 12:31 PM EST

Today is Tim Geithner's first full day as Treasury Secretary, and he's already made me happy. Just a hour and a half ago, I posted a blog echoing calls for further restrictions on TARP funds, namely that banks receiving them shouldn't be able to use them to lobby Congress. And guess what? Roughly an hour ago, the AP went up with a story saying that Geithner had issued new rules stating exactly that. Good on ya, sir. (Via Sunlight)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The FDA's Walk of Shame

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 11:47 AM EST

A test case for the new government will be how it deals with the pharmaceutical industry, which rivals the gun manufacturers and tobacco companies for the position of most amoral industry in America.

Democrats have long been promising to stand up to Big Pharma on issues like Medicare drug pricing and importing drugs from Canada, but they've accomplished little since they won Congressional majorities in 2006. If they truly want to reign in the drugmakers now that they have the clout, they'll need to not only move forward on these hot-button issues, but also completely overhaul the Food and Drug Administration, which stands as one of the most corrupt and compromised bodies in the federal government today.

Last week offered a glimmer of hope, with a bipartisan bill aimed at one of the many scurrilous practices employed by drug companies to win swift approval for their products and push them on the public. Called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act of 2009, the legislation was introduced last Thursday by Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Aging, and Charles Grassley (R-IA), in the past a rare Republican voice opposing some of Big Pharma's outrages. They are calling for establishment of "a nationwide standard requiring drug, device and biologic makers to report payments to doctors to the Department of Health and Human Services and for those payments to be posted online in a user friendly way for public consumption."

Let's be clear: The proposed legislation doesn't say that doctors can't receive money (or expensive dinners, or luxury junkets) while they are testing or endorsing new drugs; it merely says the payments have to be made public. Even this, however, has apparently proven too much for the Food and Drug Administration: A report released earlier this month found that the FDA had been sorely lax in demanding full disclosure of these relationships. As reported by Bloomberg News:

Drug regulators haven't done enough to force disclosure of financial conflicts of interest among the researchers who conduct clinical trials of medications and medical devices, according to a U.S. government investigation. A total of 42 percent of marketing applications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were missing financial information that was supposed to be submitted by drug and device makers, according to a report today by the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general. The FDA didn't act against the companies, the report said.

Financial connections between companies that make drugs and devices and the doctors and other researchers who test them on humans may compromise the safety of patients in studies and the integrity of the results, according to the inspector general's report. Lawmakers, led by Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, have raised concern that financial conflicts of interest among doctors and manufacturers may influence prescribing decisions.


The FDA has fallen a long way since 1962, when legendary Senator Estes Kefauver championed its expansion, insisting that it was the federal government's responsibility to protect the public by ensuring that prescription drugs were both safe and efficacious. The FDA has for decades been playing footsy with the drug industry, and it reached new lows under George W. Bush, as fundamentalist Christianity became yet another force undermining the agency's work. Bush's appointments to the FDA leadership included a veterinarian who presided over the Vioxx scandal and stalled the Plan B pill, and a faith-based gynecologist who refused to prescribe contraceptives to married women and advised prayer as a treatment for many female ailments.

In a 2006 survey of FDA employees, more than 40 percent said they knew of cases in which political appointees had interfered with agency decisions. At that time, more than 100 whistleblower cases were also pending at the agency. Some things will now surely change at the FDA--but how much, and how soon?

Israeli Army Deploys Antelope In Battle Against Hezbollah

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 11:25 AM EST

The Onion did not come up with this one. From Haaretz:

In addition to infantry, armor and intelligence units, the Israel Defense Forces has also deployed eight Eland antelope to further secure Israel's tense northern border against Hezbollah.
The antelope have been stationed in the zone between the security fence and the international border to clear problematic foliage that distorts views of the Lebanese side and within which Hezbollah guerillas could hide.
The animals, each weighing in at over 500 kilograms, are known for their sharp incisors and fondness for eating vegetation. Hailing from eastern Africa, the animals were first brought to Israel more than 30 years ago as part of a project to raise them at local zoos before sending them to Europe.
Israel's defense establishment has apparently caught onto the beasts' impressive ability to quickly chew through large quantities, as well as the low cost of looking after them and their environmental-friendliness.

Banks Are Using Your Money to Lobby for More Money

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 11:00 AM EST

Via the Sunlight Foundation blog, an excellent suggestion from Robert Reich:

...what's happened to the Wall Street campaign contributions and to [Wall Street's] lobbyists? They're still going strong. We now know that many of the financial giants that have been bailed out by taxpayers continue to finance a platoon of Washington lobbyists, who are at this moment trying to influence TARP II and the next attempt to regulate Wall Street....
Would it not be a reasonable condition for receiving additional bailout funds — from TARP II — that a firm cease its lobbying activities and campaign contributions (as well as any contributions it makes indirectly through its executives) at least until it fully compensates taxpayers what we have provided it?

Paul Blumenthal of Sunlight puts it this way: "Essentially, we have taxpayer money cycling from the our wallets, to the government, to a bank, and then to a lobbyist, who then works to get more money for the bank." He suggests supporting S. 133, a bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe that addresses Reich's suggestion.

My $0.02: I suspect if Wall Street firms couldn't use TARP funds to lobby lawmakers, we would have seen effective limitations on executive pay added to the bailout a long, long time ago.

Culture War Dead-Enders

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 10:43 AM EST

Talk about beating a dead horse. Here's the conservative National Review, via Damon Linker:

From these announcements we learn that President Obama recognizes no difference between the Jewish-Christian covenant between a woman and a man (a covenant that they will have and nurture children, if they are so blessed), and a civil contract between two persons of any sex, in order to set up a household of affection and sexual favors.
This is a relapse into paganism.

And here's the conservative Weekly Standard, via Andrew Sullivan:

"Look out for organic broccoli farm and arugula awareness earmarks in the stimulus."

Hey folks? Sarah Palin lost, remember? The divide-and-conquer, liberals-are-all-elitists-from-fake-America bullshit went down in flames. The guy who insisted that we can work together to make the country better won decisively and now has an approval rating hovering around 80 percent. Feel free to keep banging that old, threadbare drum. 'Cause no one's listening.