2009 - %3, December

The Financial Lobby at Work

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 4:48 PM PST

Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney write today about the House Committee on Financial Services — aka the banking committee — and how Democrats decided to populate it when they won control of Congress in 2006:

The banking committee [...] is known as a "money committee" because joining it makes fundraising, especially from donors with financial interests litigated by the panel, significantly easier. The Democratic leadership chose to embrace this concept, setting up the committee as an ATM for vulnerable rookies. Eleven freshman representatives from conservative-leaning districts, designated as "frontline" members, have been given precious spots on the committee. They have individually raised an average of $1.09 million for their 2010 campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; by contrast, the average House member has raised less than half of that amount.

....Because the frontline members face the possible end of their careers in November and may be beholden to the whims of powerful donors, the Democrats' 13-seat advantage on the committee is weaker than it appears. If seven members break with the party on a vote, the GOP wins. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) refers to them as "the unreliable bottom row." (The second row is little better, populated by the Democrats from red-leaning areas who first took office after the 2006 election.)

In short, by setting up the committee as a place for shaky Democrats from red districts to pad their campaign coffers, leadership made a choice to prioritize fundraising over the passage of strong legislation. "It makes it difficult to corral consensus," says Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a subcommittee chairman, of the unwieldy panel.

The whole piece is worth a read, including the explanation of how financial interests these days tend to get local frontmen — realtors, car dealers, farmers, small credit unions — to push for loopholes that would be hard to pass if it were obvious that Wall Street firms were behind them. And for sheer entertainment, don't miss the description of senior members of the banking committee twisting themselves into knots to change their votes on legislation in order to curry favor with industry lobbyists once they've decided they were supporting a lost cause. It's politics at its finest.

But of course, keep one other thing in mind too: Democrats may cave on some of this stuff — and shame on them for doing so — but at least there's still a core group of them willing to do what's right. On the Republican side, the number of committee members willing to what's right is precisely zero.

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The Rove Divorce

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 1:40 PM PST

News flash: Karl Rove divorced his (second) wife last week. (And tweeted not one word about it.) Now liberal bloggers and Twitterers are having a field day (or hour), noting that the fellow who engineered George W. Bush's 2004 reelection by pushing anti-gay marriage initiatives in swing states has demonstrated (again) a less than enthusiastic stance regarding the sanctity of marriage.

For those looking for Rove quotes on the importance of heterosexual marriage, here's a useful tidbit from 2004. The weekend after Bush won reelection, Rove appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace and declared that Bush would push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The following exchange ensued:

WALLACE: Explain to me why civil unions can be handled at the state level but marriage can't.

ROVE: Well, marriage is a very important part of our culture and our society. If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for the ideal. And the ideal is that marriage ought to be and should be a union of a man and a woman.

And we cannot allow activist judges to overturn that. We cannot allow activist local elected officials to thumb their nose at 5,000 years of human history and determine that marriage is something else.

No one ever can know what occurs within someone else's marriage, and people are indeed permitted to preach ideals they cannot meet. (Otherwise, the pulpits would be empty on Sunday morning.) But given that Rove contended that the way to "a hopeful and decent society" is by prohibiting gay marriage and promoting heterosexual marriage, the failure of his own heterosexual marriage is all the more tragic, meaning that this great nation is now one step further from becoming that "hopeful and decent society" Rove and the rest of us yearn for.

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Quote of the Day: Grandstanding Watch

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 12:08 PM PST

From Chris Hayes, responding to the mindless blathering of Rep. Peter King (R–Hysteristan) about Obama's response to the underwear bomber:

It sounds like you're saying they've been insufficiently grandstanding on the issue.

"I don't know why you'd say that," King said. And you know what? He probably really doesn't.

Repealing Reform

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 11:43 AM PST

Apparently the conservative base is demanding that all good Republicans campaign next year on repeal of healthcare reform. This is probably a good strategy since it (a) makes for good rabble rousing but (b) will never have to be followed up on.  Republicans will never get either the 60 votes they'd need for repeal or the two-thirds they'd need to override an Obama veto, so why not promise the moon?

But since there's not a lot to blog about this week, I guess I'm curious about how exactly they're going to do this. The problem, as other people have also pointed out, is that the current bill has basically been stripped down to the bare minimum you can have once you start from the point that everyone agrees about: reforming the insurance industry. Crudely speaking, the moving parts go together like this:

  • Insurance companies are required to take all comers, regardless of preexisting conditions.
  • This requires regulation of pricing, since taking all comers is meaningless if they're priced out of the market.
  • Regulation of pricing would destroy the private insurance market, since sick people would all buy cheap insurance and bankrupt the companies. So you have to ensure that everyone buys insurance, even the young and healthy. Thus, an individual mandate.
  • But if you're going to have an individual mandate, then you have to include subsidies so that poor people can afford it.
  • And that's the ball game.

Now, there's more to healthcare reform than just this. There's Medicaid expansion for example, which I suppose Republicans could fight against. But Medicaid is cheaper than subsidies, so costs would go up if they did that. There are also all the cost cutting measures and pilot projects in the bill, and some of them are unpopular. But again, they'd basically be surrendering completely on even the idea of reining in healthcare costs if they attacked that.

So what do they have left to campaign against? Maybe the specific funding sources, but that would be a pretty raw bit of pandering to the rich. The fact is that at any level of real detail, Republicans just don't have much of an argument.

I suppose this doesn't matter, though. It sort of reminds me of the too-clever liberal response whenever conservatives start railing about cutting the deficit without raising taxes. It goes something like this: "OK, fine. But two-thirds of the federal budget is taken up by Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and interest on the debt. You don't want to cut that stuff, so to eliminate the deficit you'd have to slash about half of the remaining stuff. So what are you going to cut?"

Liberals always ask that question, conservatives never answer it since they know perfectly well it would piss off practically every registered voter in the country, and it makes no difference. They just keep saying it anyway, and lots of voters buy it. Probably it would be the same with healthcare reform. They'd refuse to say just exactly what they'd cut, and it wouldn't really make any difference. It's the thought that counts, after all.

Need to Read: December 29, 2009

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 11:34 AM PST

2009 refuses to go out with a whimper. Headlines in the pipeline today:

 

More Drama Please, Obama

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 10:40 AM PST

"I'm not sure you can get more beltway than this article," writes a friend.  Here's the article:

There is a sense of déjà vu in the Obama administration’s response to the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day. A by-now familiar pattern has been established for dealing with unexpected problems.

First, White House aides downplay the notion that something may have gone wrong on their part. While staying out of the spotlight, the president conveys his efforts to address the situation and his feelings about it through administration officials. After a few days, the White House concedes on the issue, and perhaps Barack Obama even steps out to address it.

....By the time Obama addressed the public with a brief televised statement, his critics had made such headway that the White House was left with this lede in the New York Times: “President Obama emerged from Hawaiian seclusion on Monday to try to quell gathering criticism of his administration’s handling of the thwarted Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner as a branch of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.”

It’s the kind of story the White House might have avoided if Obama hadn’t waited so long to forcefully react to the incident.

That's right: if only Obama insisted on immediately grabbing the spotlight and relentlessly overhyping events for his own political gain, maybe the right would leave him alone. Sounds like a solid plan to me.

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A Bold Stand from the Journal

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 9:20 AM PST

As a wise man once said, you could devote your entire life to debunking inane Wall Street Journal editorials once you let yourself get sucked into their gaping maw. But via Ezra Klein, today's editorial is a gem, not pretending to even a germ of reason or sanity:

The White House is now floating a bipartisan commission to reduce federal borrowing, and much of the political class is all for it. We only hope Republicans aren't foolish enough to fall down this trap door....Republicans should respond with their own choice: They'll agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table....

Yeah, I'm sure Democrats will jump at that deal. And I can't wait for the Journal's detailed fiscal plan for cutting federal spending by 30% — especially since they simultaneously seem to think that Medicare should be cut and that it should be preserved as is. Should be a crowd pleaser.

In fairness, plenty of liberals agree with the Journal in a mirror image sort of way: a commission would be nothing but a facade for Pete Peterson to gut Social Security and Medicare and probably throw in a few tax cuts for the rich for good measure. It looks like bipartisanship has as bleak a future in 2010 as it did in 2009.

We're Still At War: Photo of the Day for December 29, 2009

Tue Dec. 29, 2009 9:20 AM PST

Gunnery Sgt. Terry McElwain, from Burden, Kan., hands out care packages to members of Company E, Battalion Landing Team 2/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard USS Bonhomme Richard Dec. 23. McElwain, the company gunnery sergeant, filled in for Santa and handed out care packages, donated by Springfield, Mo., residents, to the Marines and Sailors of Co. E. (US Marines photo by Sgt. Scott Biscuiti)

Sessions Preaches Accountability While Dodging It

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 9:18 AM PST

Yesterday, as Pete Sessions' office was heroically trying to spin his "love" note to alleged Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford as an effort to "prevent further tragedy," the Texas Republican, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, blasted out a fundraising appeal to his mailing list. As my colleague David Corn notes over at Politics Daily, the message, laced with harsh rhetoric, slammed "Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and their allies" for putting the country "on a dangerous path toward bankruptcy and strict government control." He added: "Fortunately 2010 offers us a chance to hold the far left accountable and elect Representatives who will stand up for our American values in Congress." The irony, of course, is that while Sessions was preaching accountability he was simultaneously working to avoid it—concocting a pretty weak excuse for why, on the same day the feds accused Stanford of perpetrating a multi-billion dollar swindle, he emailed the following note of encouragement to the disgraced financier: "I love you and believe in you. If you want my ear/voice -- e-mail." As the Miami Herald has reported, this message is now in the hands of federal investigators who are exploring whether congressional lawmakers, including Sessions, did favors for Stanford in exchange for campaign cash and other perks.

Also ensnared in this probe is Gregory Meeks, the New York Democrat, who, according to the Herald, appealed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Stanford's behalf. Here's the backstory:

The president of his bank in Venezuela had turned on Stanford after being accused of stealing from the company, filing a lawsuit and publicly questioning whether Stanford was orchestrating a fraud.

Enraged at his former executive, Stanford placed a call in March 2006 to Democratic House member Gregory Meeks with a rare request: Go to President Hugo Chávez and seek a criminal investigation of Gonzalo Tirado.

Meeks, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, agreed to carry the message, according to two former U.S. federal agents working for Stanford who were listening to the call on speakerphone.

The politician would travel to Venezuela a month later for a series of meetings with Chávez and other leaders. A year after that visit, Venezuelan prosecutors indicted Tirado on charges of swindling and tax-evasion.

According to the Daily News, Meeks "sometimes accompanied by his wife...took six trips to sun-drenched locales from Antigua to St. Lucia, courtesy of a Stanford nonprofit called the Inter-American Economic Council." Since 2003, the organization spent more than $20,000 on the Meeks' travel, putting them up in such lux accommodations as the Ritz Carleton in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Meeks has yet to speak to these latest charges. If and when he does, don't be too suprised if he has a creative excuse, à la Pete Sessions, for his close ties and suspicous interactions with the man accused of bilking investors of some $8 billion. 

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.
 

Miscellany

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 9:20 PM PST

Three quick items:

  • Yes, the filibuster sucks, but I agree with both Ezra Klein and Bruce Bartlett that the tradition of Senate holds is even more odious. But if it's not possible even to do away with holds, I'll reiterate my suggestion that the Senate scale way, way back on the number of officials that it has to confirm. Maybe the top two officers in each executive department, appellate judges and above, and a few others of similar rank. The rest should just be straight presidential appointments.
  • Can we all, please, chill out about the failed plane bombing, chill out about Janet Napolitano's "the system worked" gaffe, and chill out about Obama remaining in Hawaii? Just. Chill. Out. We don't have to go completely cuckoo every time something like this happens. Instead, let's find out where the system failed instead of hysterically guessing about it, and then figure out what we ought to do about it.
  • For decades now, the initiative process in California has primarily been a tool of the rich and powerful, not the grassroots. Here's the latest outrage.

That is all. You may now return to Monday Night Football.