2009 - %3, April

K Street Exploits Stimulus Lobbying Loophole

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

After the Obama administration levied strict new rules on stimulus-related lobbying late last month, K Streeters didn't just get mad, they got creative. Under the March 20 directive, federal agencies must disclose lobbying contacts on stimulus issues and post them online. And, if lobbyists wish to influence government officials on particular stimulus projects, they have to put these requests in writing—communications that are also to be made public by the relevant government agencies.

Naturally, lobbyists bristled at this attempt to foist transparency on their opaque world. But it didn't take long for the influence industry to devise a very simple workaround: use non-lobbyists to lobby on the $787 billion stimulus. The Wall Street Journal reports that "the rule has brought in a slew of work for nonregistered lawyers, who can call or meet with officials without submitting requests in writing." (That is, so long as they don't spend more than 20 percent of their time peddling influence, in which case they would be legally required to register as a lobbyist.) "Where there's any issue, it's just easier to hand it off to somebody who's not registered," one lobbyist told the Journal. "Certainly people are helping out who normally wouldn't be engaged in this."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day - 4.28.2009

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Today's chart come from the long-term trends section of the NAEP, the "nation's report card."  It shows — surprise! — long-term trends on the NAEP's reading and math tests, and the results are shockingly humdrum.  (Can something be shockingly humdrum?  I say yes!)

Did American education go completely to hell in the 70s and 80s?  It sure doesn't look like it.  Both reading and math scores stayed almost rock steady during the entire "Nation at Risk" period.  Did things improve with the passage of NCLB and the advent of massive high-stakes testing?  Scores for 9-year-olds have gone up a bit, but past evidence suggests that gains among young children usually wash out by the time they're 17.  There might be a bit of progress over the past eight years, but the evidence is very thin and very tentative.  Overall, among 17-year-olds, the average reading score during the past four decades has gone from 285 to 286 and the average math score has gone from 304 to 306.  There's hardly cause for either alarm or excitement.

Obviously there are lots of details when you look at this stuff.  NCLB mostly focuses on lower grades, and most of those kids haven't yet gone on to high school.  So maybe it just needs more time.  There are racial and gender gaps to look at, differences between public and private schools, and the effects of concentrated poverty.  Still, I think it's useful sometimes to take a look at the bottom line: plain old average scores over the past four decades among 17-year-olds.  And despite all the changes during that period in demography, testing, pedagogy, and popular culture, there just hasn't been much change.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether that's good news or bad.

The People vs. Dick Cheney vs. Torture

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 1:06 PM EDT

A Patrick Fitzgerald-style investigation may be the wrong way to get the truth on torture. But what's the right one? And what form will redress take?

Writes Karen Greenberg:

The list of potential legal breaches is, of course, enormous; by one count, the administration has broken 269 laws, both domestic and international.
With these abuses in mind, lawyers, policymakers, and others have identified three models from which to fashion a response to the Bush era. In decreasing order of opprobrium, the choices are impeachment, prosecution, and investigative commission.

Re-read The People vs. Dick Cheney.

Plus: If Congress and the White House punt on prosecution, here are 5 options for who might throw the book at the Bush/Cheney crew.

Hey, did you know our special torture investigation is up for a National Magazine Award? See why: Listen to our exclusive torture playlist and re-read the secrets of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the war on terror.

The Road to 60

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Fascinating news out of Pennsylvania today:

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announced today that he will run in 2010 as a Democrat, according to a statement he released this morning.

...."I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," said Specter in a statement....He added: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

That's surprisingly forthright wording, isn't it?  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Specter finds his views more in line with Democrats these days solely because there are 200,000 more of them in Pennsylvania than there used to be.  Points for honesty, I guess.

Of course, if he's really serious about this, he could switch parties now.  And maybe announce his support for a few Democratic initiatives while he's at it.  Interesting days.

UPDATE: Obama is "thrilled" by the news.  And who can blame him?

UPDATE 2: I think I may have misunderstood Specter's statement.  Apparently he does plan to begin caucusing with the Democrats immediately.  I think.  Press reports seem oddly fuzzy on this point, though.

UPDATE 3: In 1950, Specter participated in the National Debate Tournament, which addressed itself to the following topic: "Resolved: That the United States should nationalize the basic nonagricultural industries."  How newly relevant!  My father beat him, 969-964.  Take that, Ivy League.

Redefining History

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 12:16 PM EDT

The new owners of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles want to tear it down and replace it with a pair of 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.  But not everyone is thrilled:

The Los Angeles Conservancy is determined to stop them. To bolster its campaign, it has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which today put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

"By naming this structure to the list, the National Trust is demonstrating that the preservation of recent past and modern buildings is as important to our cultural record as preserving architecture that's from the Victorian period or Art Deco era," said Christine Madrid French, director of the trust's nascent Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.

This is lunacy.  I don't care one way or another whether Michael Rosenfeld gets to build his new complex, but it makes a mockery of historic preservation to pretend that this building deserves to be protected for the rest of time.  It was built in 1966.  Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is prominent, but he's not a native Angeleno and this wasn't a pivotal work in his career.  The building itself is a fine example of 60s-era modernism, but that's just another way of saying that it's also a fairly typical example of 60s-era corporate hotel design.  In its heyday, which lasted for perhaps two decades at most, the Century Plaza attracted plenty of VIP guests, but it never became an iconic structure because of that.  The Los Angeles Conservancy's page about the hotel is here, and they pretty obviously struggled to figure out a way to make it seem even moderately noteworthy.

The Century Plaza Hotel is a recent building of genuine but modest distinction.  But it escapes me how that qualifies it as a national historic place.  Pretending otherwise does a disservice to genuine history.

How the Far Right Handed Dems a 60-Vote Majority

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

The reason Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched parties on Tuesday is rather obvious. Though Specter explained in a statement released today that it's due to the GOP's rightward shift ("I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," he said), the more likely reason is that Specter's political career would end if he remained a Republican. Unlike Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, who abandoned the GOP and caucused with the Democrats in 2001 in a principled decision, declining to run for reelection, Specter is simply reading the tea leaves. Most available polling indicates that the moderate Specter would be trounced in the 2010 Republican primary by a conservative challenger named Pat Toomey.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Stress Test Update

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 11:29 AM EDT

Stress test results are starting to leak:

Regulators have told Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. that the banks may need to raise more capital based on early results of the government's so-called stress tests of lenders, according to people familiar with the situation.

....Bank of America's capital hole as measured by the regulators is in the billions, said people close to the company....It isn't clear how big a capital deficit Citigroup faces.

Well, I'll bet that Citi's capital requirements are "in the billions" too.  What else would they be in, after all?

In any case, there's no way that either bank can raise private capital, and the Treasury has stated flatly that it won't allow them to fail.  That means either another big capital injection from the feds or else some kind of guarantee to private investors.  The former would almost certainly have to be at market rates (I doubt there's any appetite for more sweetheart deals) and the latter would be such a thin veneer that it's almost certainly impossible to pull off.  Especially in the case of Citi, then, it's hard to see how the government ends up anything other than a majority owner of the bank once this is all over.  Tim Geithner can call this anything he wants, but that's nationalization whether he likes it or not.

McCain's Curious Support for "Moving On"

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 9:35 AM EDT

In my blog post yesterday in which I pointed out that in 2007 John McCain was (correctly) telling people that we executed Japanese soldiers after WWII for waterboarding American POWs, I really should have pointed out that McCain has taken a look at the Bush Administration's actions, including waterboarding a detainee 183 times in a month, and has decided that instead of investigations or prosecutions, "we've got to move on."

Torturing Abu Zubaydah

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 1:34 AM EDT

In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind reported that CIA sources told him the waterboarding of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had been worthless: Zubaydah coughed up reams of worthless intel under pressure but didn't provide anything genuinely valuable until an interrogator later got under his skin with some clever questioning.

But in December 2007, ABC's Brian Ross interviewed a CIA officer named John Kiriakou who told him just the opposite: according to Kiriakou, Zubaydah resisted waterboarding for "probably 30, 35 seconds" and the next day started providing information that "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

My comment at the time: "Same guy. CIA sources for both accounts. But diametrically opposite conclusions. So who's right?"  Today, the New York Times revisits this episode in the wake of the torture memos released two weeks ago:

[Kiriakou's] claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah “at least 83 times.”

....During the heated debate in 2007 over the use of waterboarding and other techniques, Mr. Kiriakou’s comments quickly ricocheted around the media. But lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand knowledge of the waterboarding: He was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the C.I.A. headquarters in Northern Virginia. He learned about it only by reading accounts from the field.

....“It works, is the bottom line,” Rush Limbaugh exclaimed on his radio show the next day. “Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works.”  Mr. Kiriakou subsequently granted interviews to The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and other media organizations. A CNN anchor called him “the man of the hour.”

....Mr. Kiriakou was the only on-the-record source cited by ABC. In the televised portion of the interview, Mr. Ross did not ask Mr. Kiriakou specifically about what kind of reports he was privy to or how long he had access to the information. “It didn’t even occur to me that they’d keep doing” the waterboarding, Mr. Ross said last week. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

He added, “I didn’t give enough credit to the fiendishness of the C.I.A.”

Kiriakou's testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it's pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn't break after a single session.  Or ten sessions.  Or fifty.  And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the "dozens of attacks"?  Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?

Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn't been contradicted at all.  As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence.  If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now.

Conservatives Think Colbert Is Serious

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 6:15 PM EDT

Via HuffPo comes a study that confirms one thing we already knew—Stephen Colbert is totally hilarious—but also points out something surprising: both conservatives and liberals think he's on their side. According to an Ohio State University study, The Colbert Report is like a political Rorschach text, and you see what you want to see in it:

...Individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism.

Proof that we live in different worlds came just last week when the National Organization for Marriage (nom nom nom!!) thanked Colbert for his parody of their insane "Gathering Storm" anti-gay marriage spot. NOM president Maggie Gallagher actually said "I've always thought Colbert was a double-agent, pretending to pretend to be a conservative, to pull one over Hollywood." Wow. Really? Well, I guess if you think gay marriage is a scary lightning storm, coming to take away your rights, your brain is full of neat ideas.