2009 - %3, September

Wingnuts Unite: Ron Paul Joins Michelle Bachmann in Weirdest Town Hall Ever

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 11:18 AM PDT

Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann are supposed to be the oil and vinegar of the Republican Party. He's an anti-war, anti-Patriot Act, radically pro-civil rights libertarian. She's a Bible-thumping Bush acolyte who dreams of nuking Iran and likens gay sex to bestiality. But there they were on Friday, sharing the stage at a town hall organized by Paul backers, where Bachmann called him "one of the leading advocates for freedom in our capitol." What gives?

Bachmann's role is telling in what it says about how she and other Bush-era Republicans are trying to reposition themselves. As recently as last year's GOP presidential primary, Paul was ridiculed by the GOP mainstream for his opposition to America's costly military adventures abroad; the leading conservative website, Redstate.com, even banned his supporters from shilling for him in blog comments. Paul's votes against war funding were part of his general practice of opposing almost every government spending bill, a habit that earned him the nickname "Dr. No."

Now, of course, the once-lonely Dr. No finds himself surrounded by a Party of No. And the new GOP refuseniks want his blessing so they can obscure how their past fiscal recklessness tanked the economy and mobilize Paul's considerable grassroots machine against Obama.

That job requires some contortions. "Next year the government is going to spend more money on welfare in one year than they spent on the entire eight years of the war," Bachmann told the crowd, essentially arguing the GOP has been the party of fiscal restraint, even though Bush racked up record deficits. And now that Obama is trying to correct those excesses, she feels taxpayers' pain: "Sales tax, gas tax, every-time-you-turn-around tax," she complained. "In other words, at the rate your government has been spending, the fruits of your labor have already been spoken for."

Bachman, who has been tutored by Paul as of late during his Thursday "Liberty Luncheons," was so enamored of her new anti-tax identity that she couldn't contain herself. The "government takeover of healthcare" will literally tax away everything Americans make, she suggested, transforming the country into a communist economy: "In other words, 100 percent of your check has already been spoken for. You can't have everything that you make confiscated by the government. It doesn't work."

This and Bachman's other genuflections the the gods of the free market and small government were met with huge cheers, suggesting that Paulites are willing to forget how she and the rest of the GOP spent eight years undermining both of those things. It was almost as if the crowd was thankful to her wing of the party for royally screwing up, thereby confirming the libertarian notion that government is never the answer. Kick the dog enough, and it will lick your hand every time you whistle.

 

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Assignment Desk Watch

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 11:07 AM PDT

If the New York Times is serious about its shiny new plan to cover the conservative noise machine more thoroughly, they better jump on this one right away.  By tomorrow it will probably be gone, yet another important story missed by the mainstream media.  Get cracking, guys.

Surfing the New Stimulus 2.0 Website

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 11:06 AM PDT

Big news for all you stimulus fans—Recovery.gov, the federal recovery website, just relaunched this morning. For months, the frustratingly sketchy website was the last place you'd go to keep track of where the $787 billion in economic stimulus was being doled out. While the adminsitration scrambled to live up to the president's promise to account for "every dime," ProPublica and Recovery.com put up relatively easy-to-use recovery trackers. (Congressional Republicans also set up a less-than-user friendly site at Sunshine.gop.gov.) So how does the revamped Recovery.gov 2.0 stack up against the competition?

A quick tour of the site reveals it to be a major improvement—especially when you consider it was pulled together in just 10 weeks. Its centerpiece is an interactive map where you can track grants, loans, and contracts by location, agency, or amount. You can zoom in on funding recipients by exact location, which you can't do on the ProPublica or Recovery.com maps, making it easy to see where the checks are going locally. It also offers text lists of recipients by state and agency. ProPublica and Recovery.com offer lists by county and city, respectively—so will someone please offer a choice of recipient lists by zip code, city, county, and state? Perhaps Recovery.gov can be of assistance: For the super wonky, it offers downloadable data for making "mashups and gadgets." Amid an otherwise so-so review of the site, OMB Watch says "this is actually a really nice feature."

The Case of the Missing Documents

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 10:44 AM PDT

Two years ago the ACLU filed a request for records about torture and detainee abuse.  Part of what they got was a list of 181 documents the government considered exempt from release.  But when the feds took another look this year, they couldn't find ten of the documents on the original list.  What happened?  Nick Baumann speculates:

"It was impossible to ascertain whether the discrepancy was the result of an error by the prior administration when it created the original...index or whether the prior administration misplaced the documents in question," Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told Mother Jones. In other words, CIA and Justice Department lawyers might have mistakenly listed documents that never existed in the first place.

But is it plausible that the inconsistency could be merely a clerical error? After the Bush administration created the index, a CIA official swore under oath that she had reviewed the documents on the original list. And one of the disputed documents was listed on the original index as a 46-page memo "providing legal advice," classified as top secret and dated 25 July 2002. Schmaler says the Obama administration's search never found a document matching that description. Could the CIA and Justice Department lawyers who composed the original list have mistakenly included a non-existent memo — complete with a date and precise page count?

Well, maybe there were two 46-page memos written on 25 Jul 2002.  Or, um, maybe it was actually a memo about restraining booze, not detainee abuse.  Or something.  I'm sure it will all be cleared up soon.  Move along folks.  Nothing to see here.

Largest Electric Utility in US Drops Out of the Chamber of Commerce

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 10:13 AM PDT

Yet another blow for the Chamber of Commerce today: The largest electric utility company in the US vowed this morning that it would not renew its membership in the chamber because of its opposition to global warming action.

Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe dropped the news in a speech before the annual meeting of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). "Exelon is so committed to climate legislation that Rowe announced during today’s speech that Exelon will not be renewing its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce due to the organization’s opposition to climate legislation," the group said in a press release this morning.

This marks the third major departure from the Chamber over climate policy in just over a week, following the exit of California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM. Exelon is a member of the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental and business leaders advocating for a climate bill in Congress.

Rowe appeared in ads in support of a climate bill earlier this year. "I’m a utility CEO—not who you’d expect to be for a cap on carbon pollution," Rowe said. "But a smart cap will overhaul our economy by shifting us toward clean, American-made energy. And a smart cap will control costs and protect your family’s budget."

Rowe is also a big conservative funder, and has donated $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee for each of the past two years.

I wonder if William Kovacs, the chamber’s senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs, is regretting that "Scopes monkey trial" comment yet.

The Third Rail

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 10:04 AM PDT

Conor Friedersdorf comments on Glenn Beck's recent heresy that a McCain presidency might have been even worse than an Obama presidency:

It is therefore no surprise that Comrade Beck is now being turned on by Comrade Limbaugh and Comrade Levin (the one among the trio who actually believes most of what he says)....

Well, Levin might believe most of what he says, but I was at Blockbuster the other day and found myself thumbing through a copy of his recent bestseller, Liberty and Tyranny(Why does Blockbuster now sell books?  That's a question for another time.)  To my surprise, it turns out that for all his bombast, Levin is a wimp.

The end of his book is taken up by a "conservative manifesto," and it's chock full of fire-breathing stuff.  Eliminate the income tax, eliminate corporate taxes, put a hard cap on the size of the federal government, eliminate tax-exempt status for all environmental groups, rein in judicial review, insist on originalism as the only proper way to interpret the constitution, make governments pay property owners for all zoning changes that affect them, wipe out all teachers unions, no national healthcare, crank up military spending, put God back in government, etc. etc.  I'm paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.  It's hardcore right-wingerism.

Obviously, then, a guy like this wants to do away with Social Security and Medicare, right?  Well, hold on there, pardner.  Let's not go off half-cocked.  Sure, they're "poisonous snake oil," but all Levin can bring himself to suggest is that young people be educated about the intergenerational "trap" of entitlements so that they can be "contained, limited, and reformed."  Educated!  Limited and reformed!  That's it.

Pretty weak tea for a firebreather.  Even among the wingers, it turns out, Social Security is a third rail.  After all, I guess Levin wants old people to buy his book too.

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Trade Likely to be Flash Point in Senate Climate Bill

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 9:38 AM PDT

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are expected to unveil the draft of their climate bill on Wednesday, but other legislators are already lining up to talk about what they'd like to see changed in the bill. It's already looking like there will need to be substantial revisions on the manufacturing and trade side if they're hoping to break the deadlock in the Senate.

E&E reports that the bill is not expected to include the language in the House bill that focuses on how to protect trade-exposed and energy-intensive industries like cement, steel, refining, paper, and glass. These provisions are seen as key to getting the votes of many Midwestern, industrial-state Democrats.

"It's going to need a lot of work," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), told E&E. "My understanding is they did not include the House language on manufacturing ... But I've been talking to them about it. They are very open to it. They are in no way dismissive."

Brown is seen as a leader in the Senate on these issues, and perhaps a bellwether for how a vote on a climate bill might turn out. He's a progressive Democrat from a manufacturing and coal-dependent state, who in June 2008 voted against the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. After that vote, he vowed his support for climate action—but only if a proposal insulated states like Ohio.

 

Who Benefits From Medicare Advantage?

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 8:44 AM PDT

When Congress passed the Medicare prescription drug plan in 2003, it provided two ways for seniors to get access to pharmaceuticals: they could enroll directly in a prescription drug plan or, via Medicare Advantage, they could enroll in an HMO that offered drug coverage.  Medicare Advantage, of course, has long been controversial because the government provides subsidies to HMOs to participate, which means that it's more expensive to taxpayers than standard Medicare.

Still, Medicare Advantage enrollees enjoy extra benefits.  The program also provides incentives for HMOs to enter new areas and compete with each other.  So it's not as if the subsidies are being completely wasted.

But it does turn that they're being mostly wasted.  Austin Frakt, a health economist at Boston University, provides the dismal numbers:

My work (with Steve Pizer and Roger Feldman) shows that for each additional dollar spent by the federal government (taxpayers) on the program since 2003, just $0.14 of it can be attributed to additional value (consumer surplus) to beneficiaries....

What do we make of the other $0.86? That goes to the insurance companies but doesn’t come out “the other end” in the form of value to beneficiaries. In part it pays for the additional benefits themselves and in part it is captured as additional insurer profit.

Conversely, standard prescription drug plans provide more than a dollar of benefit for each dollar spent.  Roughly speaking, these plans cost taxpayers about 75 cents for each dollar of value they provide.

Bottom line: if healthcare reform cuts back on Medicare Advantage, the effect on retirees would be tiny.  Putting even half of the cuts back into standard prescription drug plans would almost certainly make everyone better off except for insurance companies.  The full paper is here.

How Dems Let the GOP Win on Health Care

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 7:59 AM PDT

The Republican strategy for defeating health care boils down to a game of smoke and mirrors, with conservatives scamming seniors into thinking that reform will be bad for them. In fact, most of the proposed changes to Medicare would be positive. As the New York Times explained in a Sunday editorial, " the various reform bills now pending should actually make Medicare better for most beneficiaries—by enhancing their drug coverage, reducing the premiums they pay for drugs and medical care, eliminating co-payments for preventive services and helping keep Medicare solvent, among other benefits."

That’s not to say there won’t be cuts. The Times points out:

The Obama administration and Congressional leaders are hoping to save hundreds of billions of dollars by slowing the growth of spending in the vast and inefficient Medicare system that serves 45 million older and disabled Americans. The savings would be used to help offset the costs of covering tens of millions of uninsured people.

One of the main reasons for the confusion that reigns over all things health care right now is the Democrats’ refusal to make a clear case for reform.They aren't willing to go after the real enemies of affordable health care for all: drug and insurance companies. And so as usual, the ideological vacuum left by the Democrats is being filled by Republican misinformation and fear mongering.

Eco-News Roundup: Monday September 28

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 4:39 AM PDT

Environmental news from Mother Jones' other blogs and around the world.

How Hot?: WaPo article changes expected climate change temperaure rise.

Public Costs: How much exactly would that public option run us?

Cutting CO2: The recession is seriously slowing our CO2 emissions. [LiveScience]

Incoming: The Senate may see a climate bill soon after all, thanks to Boxer and Kerry.

Climate Forecast: Kate Sheppard fears climate fatigue may be setting in for policy-makers.

Big Plans: Some want to make a new, international, WTO-like climate body.

Big Spenders: China and Korea spend the most on green projects. [Planet Ark]

Subsidies Begone: G20 is moving forward with cutting subsidies for fossil fuel producers.

Chamber Defections: Companies are fleeing the US Chamber of Commerce over its climate policy.

High Expectations: A statement tries to downplay expectations of Obama at Copenhagen.

Crowd Survey: Checking the crowds at the G20 protests, Twitters and all.

Cantor's Choice: The GOP can have a full-scale plan, but not without involving the Feds.