2009 - %3, January

Top Ten Bills

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 12:53 PM EST

TOP TEN BILLS....Over at Tapped, Tim Fernholz passes along summaries of the top ten bills the Senate Democratic leadership plans to introduce this month. It starts with S.1, the stimulus bill, and runs down through troubled mortgages, healthcare, climate change, education, immigration, and a few other things. The descriptions are mostly just placeholders and don't really say much, but it's still an interesting look at Harry Reid's priorities.

Perhaps what's most interesting, though, is what's not on the list: card check, forcing hedge fund billionaires to pay ordinary taxes on their income (possibly the biggest no-brainer legislation in recent history), military procurement reform of any kind, and serious financial regulation. That's not to say this stuff won't come later. But apparently it's not part of the Top Ten.

UPDATE: A couple of commenters think card check is implied as part of S.2. Maybe so. The wording seems awfully vague if that's really their intent, but we'll see.

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Bringing Us Together

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 12:24 PM EST

BRINGING US TOGETHER....The LA Times reports on Barack Obama's attempt to get wide bipartisan support for his fiscal stimulus package:

Despite Barack Obama's decision to include as much as $100 billion in business tax breaks to his economic stimulus package to woo reluctant Republicans, obstacles to speedy, bipartisan passage remain.

...."I think he would like to have a large bipartisan vote in favor of this package. And he knows, even before we mentioned it, that the way to do that is obviously for it to have elements that are appealing to Republicans," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after a 90-minute meeting that Obama held with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders Monday.

....At the same time, McConnell and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said they were not ready to endorse the overall stimulus proposal....House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), speaking after the closed-door meeting with Obama, said, "I think there would be a lot of support" for tax cuts among the GOP rank and file. But, he added, "we cannot afford to be burdening our children and our grandchildren with an extra trillion dollars in debt."

The more I read about this, the more perplexed I get. What is Obama's goal here? He's already tossed in something like $300 billion in tax cuts to curry Republican favor, and his spending plans amount to about $200 billion per year for two years. That's a big number, but it's also only about 1-2% of GDP. It's not that big a deal, and as a response to a massive recession it ought to be a no-brainer, even for Republicans.

But they're playing the game anyway. By pretending to be skeptical, they're hoping to wring yet more concessions out of Obama. Which is exactly what you'd expect them to do. It's politics.

But what does Obama get out of this? He's got the votes to pass his package already, and it's hard to see what a bigger vote total buys him. In fact, considering what a crowd pleaser this bill is likely to be (jobs + tax cuts + aid to states = wild popularity), it's not entirely clear why Obama is working so hard to get Republican votes. Wouldn't it be better if the public saw this bill as a Democratic victory enacted over the meanspirited, neo-Hooverite obstructionism of a dying and bitter Republican Party? Besides, when push comes to shove, my guess is that plenty of Republicans will be clamoring to vote for this bill no matter what Obama does. Who wants to be left off the gravy train with elections coming up in a mere 22 months?

(And if, against all odds, the bill ends up being unpopular, or viewed as ineffective? Or the economy continues to suck no matter what? Well, all the Republican votes in the world still won't help Obama. They'll attack him viciously whether they voted for the bill or not, and he'll own the economy, for good or ill, regardless.)

I guess this all comes down to whether you really believe Obama can change the tone in Washington. He seems to genuinely believe he can, and his actions on the stimulus bill make sense if you see them as the opening move in a long-term project to dial down the bitter partisanship of the past couple of decades. The press might eat this up (or might not, since they generally dismiss this kind of talk from Democrats), but I continue to wonder what makes Obama believe he can pull this off? There's just no evidence from history to suggest that this can work, and no evidence from the recent history of the conservative movement to suggest that they're planning to adopt a more conciliatory tone over the next few years.

So I continue to wonder: What does Obama see that I don't? What does he know that I don't? I'm flummoxed.

The Federal Gov't Decides to Let Old Folks Keep Their Own Money - What's Left of It

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 11:56 AM EST

As one of its final acts in the worst economic year since the Great Depression, the federal government passed legislation suspending for 2009 the rule requiring old people to withdraw a minimum amount of money from their 401Ks, IRAs, or other individual retirement accounts. The current rule imposes a 50 percent tax penalty on anyone over age 70 1/2 who fails to take their so-called mandatory distributions by the end of the year.

That's right, fellow oldsters--as a parting gift to all of us, the 110th Congress and George W. Bush, who failed to prevent or contain the financial meltdown that has cost some of us a third or more of our life savings, is now giving us permission not to spend some of what's left.

The idea behind the legislation is that seniors shouldn't be forced to sell off their investments at a loss. Unfortunately, however, it applies to 2009, not 2008--which is, of course, when our retirement accounts got gutted. According to the New York Times, some members of Congress urged Henry Paulson's Treasury Department to apply the same change to 2008, but it declined to do so.

In a letter to members of Congress, the Treasury Department said any steps it could take to address the issue would be "substantially more limited than the relief enacted by Congress and could not be made uniformly to all individuals subject to required minimum distributions." It also said carrying out the changes would be "complicated and confusing for individuals and plan sponsors."

Well, by all means, let's not confuse the old farts; we're having a tough enough time figuring out how how it is that we did everything we were supposed to do--worked, planned, saved, invested--and still got so royally screwed. And let's not complicate things for the financial institutions, who are already overburdened figuring out how to spend their $700 billion handout.

Political Persuasion

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 11:30 AM EST

POLITICAL PERSUASION....Matt Yglesias mocks RNC Chairman Mike Duncan's recent burbling about how Republicans need to start using Twitter and Facebook and "the different technology that young people are using today":

I love Twitter. I have two Twitter feeds. I manage one with Twitterific and another with Twitterfox. And of course there's my iPhone interfaces, too. Twitter's neat, it's fun, I enjoy it. But you can't do political persuasion on Twitter and anyone who's at all familiar with either Twitter or political persuasion could tell you that. It's important for political movements to embrace new technologies, but part of embracing new technologies is understanding them and actually respecting what they're for and Twitter is never going to be anything other than an incidental sideshow to political activism.

I'm not so sure about that. It sort of depends on what you mean by "political persuasion," I think. A steady stream of tweets containing ever more apocalyptic messages about (for example) the imminent demise of American civilization due to immigration legislation wending its way through Congress could be effective at helping to rouse the masses to protest. Couldn't it? Matt is probably right that Twitter by itself is something of a sideshow, but all of these technologies put together (Twitter, texting, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) could end up being as effective in mobilizing the 20something generation as talk radio was mobilizing the Newt generation. And mobilization is persuasion, no?

Actually, Duncan's real problem is probably not so much that he's wrong about Twitter, but that he doesn't have any real clue about what Twitter is. He seems to treat it more like a buzzword than a genuine concept. But at least it's a start.

Oversight Committee: 13,847 Recommendations That Bush Ignored

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 9:38 AM EST

burning-money.jpgThe House Oversight Committee released a report this morning identifying nearly 14,000 recommendations made by agency Inspectors General since 2001 that have yet to be acted upon by the Bush administration. In addition to simply improving health, safety, and security conditions, the committee claims that implementing some of these fixes could save taxpayers an estimated $25.9 billion. It's a big number, but more interesting to me were some of the IG recommendations that have languished. Along with examples of run-of-the-mill government waste—e.g., "FEMA could recover $16 million in excessive billings and questionable costs resulting from poor management of a contract"—there are a few doozies.

Like:

In May 2003, the IG for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a report concluding that the Commission's limited oversight does not provide adequate assurance that all licensees properly control and account for special nuclear material, such as plutonium and uranium.16 In a December 2008 memorandum to NRC management, the IG raised concerns about "continued delays" in promulgating rules to address these security concerns. NRC estimates it may not complete the rulemaking until July 2011, eight years after the report's release.

Favorite Presidents

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 8:42 PM EST

FAVORITE PRESIDENTS....At a recent debate, all the candidates for RNC chairman named Reagan as their favorite Republican. Ezra Klein comments:

It's really weird that Republican candidates for high office almost never named Abraham Lincoln as their favorite Republican president. He was, after all, a Republican. And he was inarguably more consequential than Reagan, no matter how enamored you are of Reagan's tenure. Indeed, most historians consider him America's greatest president.

Ezra chalks this up to coded racism, and maybe that's right. I guess I'd guess be a little more generous, though, and attribute it instead to the different valences of favorite vs. greatest, figuring that Lincoln would be more likely to come up if these guys were asked who the greatest Republican was. Maybe.

But this is really just an excuse to observe the weird fact that for modern conservative Republicans, Reagan isn't merely their most frequently named favorite, he's pretty much their only possible answer to this question. Bush Jr. is obviously damaged goods. Bush Sr., Ford, and Eisenhower are more or less considered closet Democrats these days. Nixon was a crook. Hoover — 'nuff said. Coolidge and Harding were do-nothings. If you're restricting yourself to the past century, you're basically stuck with Reagan and no one else.

Democrats have it way better. Sure, most Dems of the past century produce mixed sentiments (especially Wilson and LBJ) but virtually every one of them is at least a plausible candidate for "favorite Democrat." Modern liberals haven't excommunicated any of them.

Why is this? Why is it that Republicans have produced only one president in the past century that they're still enthusiastic about?

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Panetta to Head Up CIA

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 7:39 PM EST

PANETTA TO HEAD UP CIA....Apparently Barack Obama has chosen Leon Panetta to head the CIA. This is a pretty unconventional choice since Panetta has no intelligence experience, but David Corn is enthusiastic:

A CIA director who has denounced torture, advocated intelligence cuts, and backed greater congressional control of covert operations — that would be....different. This appointment certainly has the potential to spark opposition from inside and outside the agency. But if Panetta manages to make it to Langley without much fuss, that would indeed signal real change in Washington.

More about Panetta at the link. Panetta on torture here.

UPDATE: Feinstein and Rockefeller apparently aren't very enthusiastic about this choice.

Finally....Election Pool Winners!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:38 PM EST

FINALLY....ELECTION POOL WINNERS!....Back in October I held a pool to guess the results of the November election. With Al Franken now the official winner of the Minnesota senate race (officially enough for me, anyway), I can finally declare a winner.

Two winners, actually. Here's how things broke down:

  • Obama won 365 electoral votes, but nobody got that exactly right. (Thanks, Nebraska!) So I rounded up all the people who predicted 364 electoral votes.

  • Democrats won 257 House seats and 59 Senate seats (counting the two independents). However, none of the folks in the 364 pool got that exactly right.

  • But two people came close. Professional prognosticator Sam Wang (founder of the Princeton Election Consortium) guessed 257 House seats and 58 Senate seats, while James Shearer predicted 260 House seats and 59 Senate seats.

Congratulations, James and Sam! A free subscription to Mother Jones is yours for the asking. Just email me your address and I'll get you signed up.

Obama Picks Anti-Torture Advocate for CIA Chief

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:31 PM EST

News outfits are reporting that Leon Panetta has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.

It's an unusual choice, for Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who became President Bill Clinton's budget chief and then his White House chief of staff, has no direct intelligence experience, and the CIA in previous decades has been rather unwelcoming to outsiders. (Obama's first pick for the spy chief slot, John Brennan, a career CIA officer, withdrew his name, after bloggers and others raised questions about his involvement in the agency's post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.) Panetta, if confirmed, will work closely with retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence.

Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player--kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit. He is also a zero-tolerance critic of the use of torture, and he considers waterboarding--a tactic used by the CIA--to be torture. A year ago, he wrote in The Washington Monthly:

Cytotec: The Ulcer Drug Turned DIY Abortion Pill

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:59 PM EST

The New York Times has a piece today on misoprostol, the FDA-approved ulcer medication that is more often used as an underground abortion pill. Ann Friedman's piece in MoJo a couple years ago about Cytotec, Pfizer's misoprostol, explored the drug's rise as a go-to abortifacent, particularly among low-income, immigrant, and Latina women. Cytotec, readily available by mail, allows women to bypass increasing abortion hurdles in their states, like parental notification and waiting periods, barriers that women in religious conservative families simply can't face. And at $2 a pill they're cheap, cheaper even than drugs from a health clinic.

The Times piece points to two new studies that suggest misoprostol's use for a DIY abortion is on the rise. As Ann wrote back in 2006, this development shouldn't come as a surprise given ever-tightening abortion restrictions. "Despite the legal and health risks, Cytotec will likely remain an attractive choice for many women—so long as it stays out of the spotlight." Perhaps the Times' story, and the new research studies, will mean a place in the spotlight's not far behind.