2009 - %3, September

Senate to Vote On Vitter's Anti-Climate Czar Amendment

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 3:40 PM EDT

GOP Sen. David Vitter recently tweeted that the Senate will soon vote on his amendment blocking the use of federal funds for any policies initiated by the White House climate czar (a.k.a. White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy director Carol Browner): "Vote on my amendment to block Obama czars in an hour. If your against Obama's czars let your followers know."

Vitter's measure is one of about 50 being considered as the Senate prepares to pass the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. If Vitter's right, the Senate should be voting on his amendment any minute now. We'll let you know what happens.

Update: The amenedment failed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 2:13 PM EDT

From Eric Kolchinsky, a former analyst at Moody's, a ratings agency, on why he's testifying before Congress today about abuses of the ratings process:

I was part of the process that did all this damage, and I feel I should try to do something now to make sure it doesn't happen again.

That's refreshing.  If you read the linked story, Kolchinsky basically says that it's business as usual at Moody's: they're giving high ratings to insanely complex debt instruments even when they know the underlying assets aren't really in very good shape.  It's yet another data point suggesting that Wall Street is already piling back into all the same practices that caused last year's meltdown.  And why not?  Unlike Kolchinsky, none of these guys really seem to believe they did anything wrong in the first place.  Hooray for bailouts!

G20: Punting On Climate Funding for Poor Countries?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

The number one priority at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh this week will be the economy, for obvious reasons. But the assembled leaders had earlier signaled that they'd tackle another thorny subject with massive financial ramifications: raising money to help poor countries deal with climate change. This important negotiation now seems to be slipping further and further down the G20 agenda. But if world leaders don't address it soon, we'll get stuck with a bill that makes the bank bailouts look like chump change.

Adaptation financing is emerging as a key leverage point in the run-up to Copenhagen. Poor countries will try to make additional funding a condition for signing on to any deal. Rich countries will try to use the lure of money to get developing nations to make concessions.

This is a dangerous game, because money for adaptation is vital in its own right. McKinsey recently released a major study of the economies of countries that are especially vulnerable to global warming—and which are already losing up to 12 percent of annual GDP to existing climate events. Some areas in these countries will one day become unliveable. But the study found that between 40 to almost 100 percent of their national economic losses that are projected to be caused by climate change by 2030 could be averted by adaptation measures—like putting homes in flood-prone areas on stilts or improving irrigation and soil technology in drought-stricken regions.

Murkowski's EPA End Run Fails

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's attempt to block EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is DOA.

Although Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be introducing her amendment to the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill on the floor of the Senate later today, Joe Romm reports that her attempt to undermine the Clean Air Act will not come to a vote. As Kate Sheppard pointed out yesterday, the legally questionable provision would have been another setback during what the UN is optimistically referring to as "climate week."

The provision was condemned not only by more than 30 environmental groups but also raised the ire of centrist legislators such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Yesterday at the Council on Competitiveness, Warner criticized the amendment for "simply putting off an inevitable decision." He specifically rebuked the supposed economic concerns Murkowski cited in proposing the amendment and suggested that it "not only sacrifices American leadership but—equally important—it sacrifices our ability to get on board with...what I believe would be the greatest wealth-creation sector and job-creation sector in the next quarter century."

The possibility of EPA greenhouse gas regulation has survived another day, but getting a comprehensive climate bill through the Senate before Copenhagen still looks difficult, if not impossible.

Bernanke and Punchbowlism

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

Legendary Fed chair William McChesney Martin joked that the Fed's job was "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going."  Translated, he meant that whenever the economy started to really get going, the Fed was obligated to raise interest rates and slam on the brakes before inflation got out of hand.  This also killed growth and caused recessions, but he figured it was the only choice he had.

Brad DeLong is afraid that this sentiment will make a comeback:

Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation, but due to capture of legislatures by the banking sector they are unlikely to get it. Thus they are going to be driven to be always wondering whether they should be putting extra downward pressure on asset prices — with implications for employment and possibly growth.

The fact that "Punchbowlism" can be implemented by central banks by themselves makes it the default option.

"Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation"?  You could have fooled me.  It strikes me that the Fed has been captured by the banking sector every bit as thoroughly as Congress has.  The Fed, after all, still has considerable influence.  If Ben Bernanke pulled out his shiniest, sharpest pitchfork and took to the podium with a really full-throated, sky-is-falling warning that we needed serious new financial regulations and then demanded that CONGRESS. MUST. ACT. NOW — well, Congress would probably act.  Not completely.  It's still Congress, after all.  But if Bernanke really put his back into it, he'd make some pretty serious waves.

But I have not, to put things delicately, noticed him doing any such thing.  On the contrary, he seems far more interested in protecting the Fed's turf, offering up weak-tea compensation proposals, slow rolling increased consumer protections, and pretending that a brand new committee devoted to "systemic risk" will somehow do what the Fed has never done before.  These are not the actions of a revolutionary who wants to remake the regulatory system.

I'm a Bernanke skeptic, so I guess my crankiness here can be discounted.  But I simply haven't seen any sign that he's really dedicated to root-and-branch regulatory reform.  I also rather doubt that he's very dedicated to "punchbowlism," frankly.  In fact, as near as I can tell, he's basically dedicated to getting us out of our current crisis (which is good!) and then tweaking the system just enough so that things can go back to the way they've always been (not so good).  I hope he proves me wrong.

Fiore Cartoon: Worldwide Domination

Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:41 PM EDT

What if the world dealt with the Nazis of yesterday the same way we deal with the scourge of climate change today?

Watch Mark Fiore's re-vision after the jump:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

When American Narcs (and British Bloggers) Just Say Yes to Drugs

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

If you're associated with drug enforcement and moonlight as a drug dealer, this month has not been easy on your kind. Last week authorities in Maryland busted up a $1.5 million cocaine ring. Among the 12 arrested, a former DC cop.

Earlier this month, the DEA arrested Richard Padilla, a high-ranking US official in the war on drugs, for serving "as a secret ally" to the drug lords of Mexican cartels. This from the LA Times:

"The charges underscore the corruptive might of the cartels, which have bought off Mexican politicians, police chiefs and military commandos. Drug lords have corrupted U.S. border inspectors and agents to help smuggle cocaine north. In 2006, the FBI chief in El Paso was convicted of charges related to concealing his friendship with an alleged kingpin."

Ah, the corruptive influence of Mexican drug cartels. That's the same point we made in our July/August cover story. And it doesn't stop in Mexico—but really now, who's surprised?

And finally, in other drug news, two amazing tidbits:

  • It must be hard out there for a narc, because after executing a drug raid, some cops in Tampa got a Wii bit distracted by the suspect's video games.
  • And... We so badly want to claim British blogger Andrew Sullivan as a fellow American that we don't care what he's smoking; he didn't even have to pay his $125 fine after getting caught with pot on National Park Service property. It just goes to show we DO like immigrants, and let them be naughty—or shill for the party, in the case of former GOP operative Michael Kamburowski—as long as they speak English well enough to write for The Atlantic.

Correction: Oops! In the original post, I misidentified Sullivan as Canadian. What was I smoking? Fixed.

Interim Kennedy Replacement: Incongrous Pick?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 12:50 PM EDT

Over at the Sunlight Foundation, Paul Blumenthal runs down the resume of Paul Kirk, the ex-DNC chair and close Kennedy family friend who has been named to temporarily fill the late senator's seat. Given Kirk's background as a drug company lobbyist and ties to a top financial and insurance firm, Blumenthal notes, he seems like a slightly incongruous pick—even on an interim basis—with health care and financial reform topping the congressional agenda.

Some of Kirk's recent career highlights:

Kirk is the CEO and Chairman of Kirk & Associates, a business consulting company, and sits on the board of both an insurance company, The Hartford Financial Group, and a timber and real estate company, Rayonier, Inc. Kirk also previously worked as a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company, Aventis.

...

Kirk sits on the Compensation and Personnel Committee for The Hartford in charge of employee compensation and executive bonuses. While compensation fell significantly from 2007 to 2008, this did not keep The Hartford from escaping criticism for compensation policies. Ramani Ayer, CEO and Chairman of The Hartford, was named by Forbes Magazine one of the most overpaid executives in 2008...

...

In 1999, Kirk represented the pharmaceutical company Aventis as a lobbyist for Sullivan & Worcester. Kirk listed on his lobbying disclosure forms “FDA reform” as the sole issue and the Senate as the only body he was lobbying. In 1997, Congress passed and the President signed into law the FDA Modernization Act. One provision of the bill sought to curb red-tape and regulation to streamline the drug approval process. After the bill’s passage pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying arm, PhRMA, complained about the FDA’s speed at implementing the legislation and continued existence of some regulatory barriers. In 1999, the Senate held hearings on the subject with PhRMA President Alan Holmer told the Senate Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Committee that the legislation “fails to provide the regulatory relief Congress intended and actually codifies some of the agency’s prior-approval practices that Congress wanted to eliminate.” Kirk’s focus on “FDA reform” for Aventis was likely related to the complaints about the FDA Modernization Act and its implementation.

UPDATE: Here's Public Citiizen's Craig Holman commenting to the Boston Herald on Kirk's appointment: "Obviously, this is a conflict of interest and raises serious concerns. It is distressing. There were many qualified people."

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.
 

Kent Conrad on Healthcare

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

This quote from Kent Conrad made the rounds of the blogosphere yesterday:

Let me just conclude for my progressive friends who believe that the only answer to getting costs under control and having universal coverage is by a government-run program. I urge my colleagues to read the book by T.R. Reid, "The Healing of America."

I had the chance to read it this weekend. He looks at the health-care systems around the world. And what he found is in many countries they have universal coverage. They contain costs effectively. They have high-quality outcomes, in fact higher than ours. They're not government-run systems in Germany, in Japan, in Switzerland, in France, in Belgium — all of them contain costs, have universal coverage, have very high quality care and yet are not government-run systems.

This has been sort of rattling around in my head ever since I saw it, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what I wanted to say about it.  But then I figured it out: it's completely, 100% batshit crazy.  I mean, is this actually breaking news to Conrad after (excuse me a moment while I google) 22 years in the Senate?  WTF?

Believe me: Conrad's "progressive friends" would be punch drunk with ecstacy if the United States adopted the healthcare system of (take your pick) Japan, France or Germany.  It would be beyond our wildest dreams.  Does Conrad really not know this?  Did he only find out this weekend that those other countries have terrific healthcare systems that contain costs, provide universal coverage, and boast very high-quality care?  What's going on?

Will G20 Take to Obama's Fossil Fuel Pitch?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 8:30 AM EDT

Barack Obama has indicated that at this week's G20 summit in Pittsburgh his administration will urge member countries to end subsidies to fossil fuels—which receive upwards of $67 billion from governments around the world. But exactly what he means by that is not yet clear.

The administration's plans to push the issue of subsidies leaked last week in a letter by Obama adviser on international economic affairs Michael Froman. Froman indicates that the US should call on members of the G20 to eliminate all fossil fuel and electricity subsidies, as a "logical step in combating global climate change." From the letter: