2009 - %3, February

Gov't Spending Freeze: A Future GOP Tactic?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:07 PM EST

I've long worried that the Republicans have a hidden ace card, and I think we're seeing its first playing.

Here's what worries me. The Republican Party, newly enamored with fiscal responsibility, can make a plausible-sounding argument that after the stimulus bill, the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, and the homeowner bailout, the federal government simply does not have money left to spend. The American people are tightening their belts -- it's time for the government to do the same. Here's Congressman Tom Price, head of the very conservative Republican Study Committee, essentially making that argument while calling for a freeze in government spending.

"Put simply, government spending is out of control," said Chairman Price. "The American people are making tough economic choices, but this Congress is failing to make tough choices as well. As we sink further into debt, Democrats in Congress continue to endorse the causes of the problem rather than embracing a solution. With federal deficits possibly approaching three trillion dollars, a freeze on new government spending is the least we can do. Washington likes to talk about fiscal restraint, but the American people demand more than lip service. It's time to make responsible policy a reality rather than a talking point."

Quick note: I haven't heard or seen that three trillion dollar figure anywhere else. President Obama's fiscal responsibility summit yesterday was meant to suggest to the American people that Democrats can be the party of thrift, that a public worried that the government may spend beyond its means need not turn to fundamentalists like Price. I think we'll see more of this back and forth as Obama tries to move his budget through Congress in the coming weeks.

Update: Looks like the Republican leadership in the House is already making this a major issue.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Virginia Senate Panel Kills Police Prayer Bill

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:50 AM EST

A Virginia state Senate committee voted Monday to kill a bill that would have allowed state police chaplains to recite prayers in the name of Jesus and other deities at official events.

The decision ended a dispute that erupted last September, when Virginia's police superintendent issued an order requiring chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers in public. Six chaplains resigned, and a handful of Virginia pols took up the issue, alleging the request was an attack on Christianity. At the time, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith painted the chaplains as victims, saying the state was requiring the men to "disregard their own faith while serving," which infringed upon "their First Amendment rights," leaving them "little choice but to resign."

The situation is stark, but not in the way Griffith sees it: The very law that allows the chaplains the right to identify as Christians also bans the government from sponsoring any particular religion. The chaplains are sworn government personnel who appear in uniform and are paid when they deliver invocations and benedictions at public events. In that capacity, they are representatives of the state, not of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. As one chaplain put it, "When I don my police uniform, I am no longer representing my congregation as a Jewish clergy. Instead, I am representing the government, and therefore the public is my congregation."

Obama Sets off GOP Civil War

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:48 AM EST

Here's a real political diss. Speaking to The Washington Times, Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has said he's happy to accept the stimulus funds for his state, had some choice words for his fellow GOPers on Capitol Hill:

The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so "inconsequential" that he doesn't even bother to talk to them.

"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential - completely."

Just a week or so ago, Congressional Republicans were crowing that their lockstep opposition to President Obama's stimulus bill had brought them back from irrelevance and marginalization. Perhaps. But it has also sparked a civil war within the party between practical, give-me-the-money governors (such as Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and ideological conservatives who are talking about eschewing some of the stimulus funds (notably, Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour) and a clash between those pragmatic governors and the GOP's leaders on Capitol Hill. Good work, everyone. Obama's stimulus has become a wedge issue within the Republican Party.

On Monday night, I discussed this on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

Carbon Fail

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:28 AM EST
This is a huge disappointment.  The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was designed to fill in missing gaps in our understanding of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, failed to reach orbit:

Three minutes [after liftoff], during the burning of the third stage, the payload fairing — a clamshell nose cone that protects the satellite as it rises through the atmosphere — failed to separate as commanded.

....“The fairing has considerable weight relative to the portion of the vehicle that’s flying,” said John Brunschwyler, manager of the Taurus rocket program for Orbital Sciences of Virginia, which built both the rocket and the satellite.

“So when it separates off, you get a jump in acceleration,” said Mr. Brunschwyler. “We did not have that jump in acceleration. As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit.”  The satellite fell back to Earth, landing in the ocean just short of Antarctica.

More here from Jonathan Hiskes at Gristmill about what the OCO was supposed to do.

Bush's Last-Minute Gift to Crappy Nursing Homes

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 10:45 AM EST

That Bush-Cheney legacy is going to be a mean one for years. And there's likely to de a drip-drip-drip disclosure of all the damage done. For instance, on Tuesday there was news that the Bush administration screwed nursing homes residents. Bloomberg reports:

The Bush administration shut off a source of information last fall about abuse and neglect in long- term care facilities that people suing nursing homes consider crucial to their cases.

The change that affects the $144 billion nursing-home industry occurred with no public notice or attention, perhaps because of the array of last-minute rules that President George W. Bush’s appointees rushed out before leaving Washington last month.

“This is pretty stunning,” said Mark Kosieradzki, a plaintiff attorney in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Nobody was told. It was just done.”

The rule designates state inspectors and Medicare and Medicaid contractors as federal employees, a group usually shielded from providing evidence for either side in private litigation.

The restrictions affect about 16,000 nursing facilities in the U.S. and 3 million residents. The practical effect is to force litigants to go to greater lengths, including seeking court orders, to get inspection reports or depositions for cases they are pursuing or defending.

Wonder who asked for this rule change? Could it have been...the nursing home industry? This was truly a harsh move, making it harder for abused nursing home residents to gather information on the institutions in which they live. Big hat tip to Bloomberg for a fine piece of investigative reporting that uncovered a telling example of the Bush administration's compassionate conservatism.

More Trouble on Wall Street

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:52 AM EST
Even the relatively healthy banks are starting to bulk up in anticipation of Timothy Geithner's stress tests:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. cut its quarterly dividend by 87% to a nickel a share, a surprise move aimed at beefing up the bank's capital cushion as the economy deteriorates and putting it in a position to potentially repay funds received from the government more quickly.

....[CEO James] Dimon said the decision, which came as the government is preparing to test whether banks' portfolios can hold up under a severe economic stress, was voluntary and doesn't reflect any unexpected problems in the bank's results. In fact, he said the bank remains profitable more or less in line with Wall Street's expectations.

....The reduction in the dividend will let J.P. Morgan hang on to an extra $5 billion a year — enough, Mr. Dimon said, to help the bank weather a scenario in which the recession drags on for two years, unemployment tops 10% and home prices ultimately drop 40% from their peak.

JP Morgan has been widely viewed as the strongest of the big money center banks, so the fact that even they're feeling nervous about their ability to pass Geithner's test doesn't bode well for the rest of them.  It's a smart thing to do, but it's still a little unnerving that they feel like they have to do it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Best Grilled Cheese Money Can't Buy

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:35 PM EST

The problem with food festivals is that it is always little unclear if the judges are there because they are interested in truly rendering an objective decision or because they're just, well, hungry.  

This becomes particularly obvious if the food in question is a grilled cheese sandwich. Um yeah I'm a "judge," feed me lunch.

Pentagon "Believes" It Has Accounted For "Most" of Its Private Security Contractors

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:12 PM EST
"We believe these numbers include most subcontractors and service contractors hired by prime contractors under DoD contracts," reads the fine print of the latest Pentagon report (.doc) on the number of armed private contractors currently working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Central Command's area of responsibility. This should give us at least some pause about the sort of exact numbers presented in the report.

According to the Pentagon's fuzzy math, as of December 31, 2008, it had 8,701 armed security contractors in Iraq, of which 727 were Americans, 6,909 were Third Country Nationals, and 1,065 were Iraqis. This represented a 12 percent decrease as compared with the same time last year. Afghanistan, on the other hand, saw a 1 percent increase in armed contractors over the same period to... about 3,184. It will be interesting to see how this number skyrockets over the coming year as the Pentagon steps up its presence there.

One thing to note: the numbers reflect only those armed security contractors working on Pentagon contracts. Blackwater's gun-toating coterie is therefore absent from the figures. Very shortly, of course, they'll be absent altogether thanks to the State Department's decision not to renew Blackwater's contract.

Did Slumdog Millionaire Exploit its Slum-Dwelling Child Actors?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:06 PM EST

Their parents seem to think so. The mother of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail—the 10-year-old who plays the lead character's brother, Salim, in the Oscar-sweeping film—still lives lives with her son in a hovel made of tarps and blankets in Mumbai's Behrampada shanty, where rats roam and sewage runs untreated. "He's supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he's living," she told Australia's Herald Sun. "We need money and help now. It is hard living like this. I am worried that after the Oscars are over they will forget us."

And then there's the movie's other slum star:

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the young version of Latika, the film's heroine, lives nearby. Her shack is brightly coloured but an open sewer runs close by.
Her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.

"I am very happy the movie is doing so well but it is making so much money and so much fame, and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more," he said.

But British director Danny Boyle says he's trying to be smart about how he pays the child actors:

They said they paid painstaking attention to how Azharuddin and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit over and above the payment for their work.
The children, who have never received formal eduction, have been enrolled in school since last June at the production company's expense until they are 18.
Azharuddin and Rubina will receive a lump sum when they finish their education, and Boyle said money was in place to cover health care and emergencies.
They decided not to shower the children with cash because they could not handle it psychologically and practically.

For the most part, Boyle's approach sounds wise. But in addition, why not give the parents just enough money to move out of the slums into a half-decent apartment somewhere? They certainly deserve it now that the film has grossed $155 million. And even if the adults blow the cash, it's hard to see how that kind of modest aid would skew the kids' priorities.

UPDATE from the Daily Mail:

The filmmakers also claim they have now agreed to buy apartments for the two children and allow the families to move in, with the stipulation that they will not own the property unless the youngsters complete their education.
Tonight, however, a spokesman for the film was unable to provide further details about the apartment plans.

UPDATE #2: The Hindu reports that the Oscars have apparently shamed the Indian government into giving flats to the families.

The New York Delegation Gets Snarky

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 4:04 PM EST

New York state's two senators want the president to know that they can take a handout graciously, unlike some people. From a press release sent out by their offices:

New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer are asking President Obama to direct unwanted funds from the economic recovery package to New York. A number of Republican Governors have recently stated that they planned to refuse money from the Economic Recovery plan for their state.

"New York receives 78 cents from the federal government for every dollar we send to Washington," wrote the senators [in a letter to the president]. "If other states are willingly refusing federal support in this time of economic crisis, New York should benefit given our 'donor state' status."