2010 - %3, January

Money in Politics

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 5:23 PM EST

I think Glenn Greenwald does a good job here of working through some of the very real issues surrounding Thursday's Supreme Court decision striking down the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and allowing corporations to directly fund political candidates. It's really not an easy call: corporate money is obviously a blight on the political system and certainly a matter of considerable public interest, but restricting free speech rights, even of corporations, should give us considerable pause too. This isn't an easy question.

I'm probably closer to Glenn's pro-First Amendment position today than I was in 2002, when McCain-Feingold first passed, but at the same time I think he glosses over some of the issues in Citizen United a little too lightly. For example, there's respect for precedent:

It's absolutely true that the Citizens United majority cavalierly tossed aside decades of judicial opinions upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions. But what does that prove? Several of the liberals' most cherished Supreme Court decisions did the same (Brown v. Bd. of Education rejected Plessy v. Ferguson; Lawrence v. Texas overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, etc.). Beyond that, the central principle which critics of this ruling find most offensive — that corporations possess "personhood" and are thus entitled to Constitutional (and First Amendment) rights — has also been affirmed by decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence; tossing that principle aside would require deviating from stare decisis every bit as much as the majority did here.  If a settled proposition of law is sufficiently repugnant to the Constitution, then the Court is not only permitted, but required, to uproot it.

But there's a difference here: in the case of, say, Brown vs. Board of Education, the pernicious effects of Plessy over the previous half century were plain. In Citizens United, we had an equally plain view of the effects of previous restrictions on corporate campaign funding, and those effects were.....negligible. Corporations quite clearly haven't been shut out from the political system and quite clearly haven't suffered from being unable to directly support candidates for federal office. It's one thing to correct an injustice that's become ever more manifest over the years, but quite another to overturn a long-held precedent that pretty obviously hasn't led us down a slippery slope to increased injustice.

There's also the nature of corporations vs. individuals. Corporations do have First Amendment rights, but to call corporations mere "organized groups of people," as Glenn does, seriously obscures some genuine distinctions. Modern corporations are far more than that, and long precedent recognizes this by allowing them fewer speech rights than individuals. Fairly broad restrictions on advertising, for example, are both constitutional and widely accepted. Ditto for laws that prohibit corporate officers from discussing earnings forecasts during "quiet periods." So it's perfectly defensible to suggest that corporations might also have more restricted rights when it comes to campaign speech.

On the other hand, there's no question that political speech is at the core of the First Amendment. Restricting commercial speech is one thing, but restricting political speech, no matter who's doing it, ought to raise much louder alarm bells. On a practical level, there's also the question of whether campaign finance laws even work. Did McCain-Feingold reduce corporate influence on the political process? It's hard to argue that it did. As Glenn puts it: "Corporations find endless ways to circumvent current restrictions — their armies of PACs, lobbyists, media control, and revolving-door rewards flood Washington and currently ensure their stranglehold — and while this decision will make things marginally worse, I can't imagine how it could worsen fundamentally.  All of the hand-wringing sounds to me like someone expressing serious worry that a new law in North Korea will make the country more tyrannical."

I'm just enough of a First Amendment fundamentalist to believe that there are plausible arguments for allowing corporations to make political contributions; just enough of a realist to think that it might not make as much difference as a lot of people think; and just enough of a cynic to think that corporations might not be as eager to spend huge pots of political money in plain view of their customers as you might suppose. On the other hand, I'm not credulous enough to think that modern multinational corporations are mere voluntary assemblies of concerned citizens who deserve to be treated the same way as the local PTA. The world is what it is, and in a practical sense corporations have such enormous power that it would be foolhardy in the extreme to think that we can just blindly provide them with the same rights as individuals and then let the chips fall where they may.

In the end, I guess I think the court missed the obvious — and right — decision: recognizing that while nonprofit corporations created for the purpose of political advocacy can be fairly described as "organized groups of people" and treated as such, that doesn't require us to be willfully oblivious to the fact that big public companies are far more than that and can be treated differently. Exxon is not the Audubon Society and Google is not the NRA. There's no reason we have to pretend otherwise.

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What Scott Brown's Victory Means

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 12:31 PM EST

Was Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts part of a widespread revolt against the Obama agenda, and in particular against the passage of healthcare reform? Apparently not. The Washington Post polled Massachusetts voters after the election and asked if "one reason" for their vote was to express opposition to the Democratic agenda. The result is on the right.

Bottom line: only 35% of voters cast their vote to express opposition to the Democratic agenda. And although Massachusetts is a liberal state, 30% of its residents still self-identify as conservative. In other words, not only was the absolute number of people opposed to the Democratic agenda small, but virtually all of them were conservatives who have opposed the Democratic agenda from the start. There's just no sign of a sudden tidal wave of new opposition there. This election was mostly about a bad economy and a lousy candidate, not a rebellion against healthcare reform.

UPDATE: Time's Karen Tumulty disagrees, reporting that Massachusetts voters really were disgusted over the process that produced the healthcare bill:

The deal now known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" may have been one of the biggest blunders in modern political history. Normally, you'd be surprised if people in Massachusetts even know who the Senator from Nebraska is. But the number of people I talked to who brought up Ben Nelson's name, unprompted, was striking. I'm also told, by some who were doing phonebanking, that they got an earful about it over and over.

Voters I talked to also brought up the deal with labor. How come, they wanted to know, that everyone has to pay this "Cadillac Tax" on high-cost insurance plans except for the unions, who get a five-year exemption? People are so disgusted by the process, I think, that they have ceased to believe that there is anything in this bill for them.

I don't want to pretend that there's absolutely nothing to this, but you really have to be careful interpreting stuff like this. Did people bring up Ben Nelson's deal unbidden? Sure. Because Fox News and talk radio have been screaming about it nonstop. Ditto for the union deal. The people who brought it up were almost certainly primarily conservatives who listen to conservative media and have been getting an earful of these outrages on an hourly basis for weeks. Again: this isn't a sign of a huge new tsunami of resentment against healthcare reform. These are mostly the same people who have been opposed to it from the start.

What People Know

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 12:28 AM EST

Nate Silver tweets: "Make sure to check out the new Kaiser poll on health care. You'll be shocked at how little people know about the bill."

Really? I doubt that. I have a dim view of human nature, so I already figure that most people don't know squat about this stuff. Still, I guess you never know. Maybe 73% think that Obamacare mandates monthly applications to the government to justify your continued use of medical services after the age of 65. Or the construction of new Soylent Green factories in every state. So let's grit our teeth and take a look. Here's the chart:

Nate is right: I am shocked. But in the opposite direction. I'm surprised people know as much as they do. And the most important stuff — guaranteed issue, subsidies, individual mandate, Medicaid expansion, and funding sources — all score in the 60-70% range. Considering how complicated this stuff is, that's not bad.

Still, it could be better. So what would it take to turn opponents into supporters? According to Kaiser, it would take wider knowledge of the following features: (1) Tax credits to small businesses, (2) Won’t change most people’s existing arrangements, (3) No federal money for abortion, (4) No federal money for illegal immigrants, (5) Health insurance exchange, and (6) Guaranteed issue. So that's the stuff to talk up.

And the least popular feature? The individual mandate, by a landslide. It's even less popular than the $900 billion cost, which is pretty remarkable. Unfortunately, the whole plan falls apart without a mandate, so there's not much we can do about that. Just learn how to explain adverse selection to your relatives when you're trying to sell them on the plan, OK?

The Drones are Coming!

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 12:06 AM EST

One of the innovations on the current season of 24 is that CTU now apparently uses a fleet of drones to keep watch over New York City. Creepy. But it turns out that art is merely imitating life:

Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers,1 in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.

....Five other police forces have signed up to the scheme, which is considered a pilot preceding the countrywide adoption of the technology for "surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering". The partnership's stated mission is to introduce drones "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" across the UK.

I can hardly wait for these things to show up over my neighborhood. I'll feel so much safer.

1British slang for people who illegally dump trash anywhere other than an authorized landfill.

Meet the Chamber's Money Maven

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 6:32 PM EST

The Supreme Court's decision striking down limits on corporate election advertising is, as I noted yesterday, a big win for the US Chamber of Commerce, which already has a war chest to influence the 2010 election. Today, National Journal's Peter Stone gives us an inside look at the woman responsible for building their substantial monetary arsenal: Agnes Warfield.

Warfield has been the Chamber's senior vice president of finance and development for nearly a decade, and in the past few years has brought in an average of $200 million to support the group's lobbying, electoral, and legal work. She's by all accounts a force to be reckoned with, bringing in potential funders to meet with president Tom Donohue, who seals the deal with new donors. She helps Donohue plan lavish dinners where Chamber board members and major donors can cavort with political bigwigs; guests during the Bush years included Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.

Those who know Warfield's work give her high marks as a money magician. She is adept at tapping the business lobby group's large team of outside advisers, a number of whom are also lobbyists. Warfield occasionally attends internal policy dinners held for chamber consultants. "She says, 'Help reach into your client base and help us raise money,' " said GOP lobbyist Scott Reed, who is a chamber consultant.
Warfield also takes good care of the chamber's big sugar daddies. "When there's a donor who wants to know about X, Y, or Z, she gets it done," Reed said. "She cracks the whip. Donors like to know what's going on in Washington."

Warfield's heading up the group's $100 million lobbying and political advocacy effort, the Campaign for Free Enterprise. And as Robert Kelner, a GOP election lawyer at Covington & Burling, told the Hotline, yesterday's decision will likely increase the amount of money coming through groups like the Chamber, an idea other campaign-finance experts echoed.

"If people think that individual companies are going to go out and buy ads, there may be some of that, but for the most part companies are going to flow this money through trade groups and other outside groups," said Kelner. "This will open the floodgates for money flowing through groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other associations [that] spend money on political advertising."

I'm guessing Warfield will be a busy woman in the coming months.

Two Muslim Scholars Finally Granted Visiting Rights

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 5:59 PM EST

Two prominent Muslim scholars will be able to visit the United States for the first time in years following the State Department's effective reversal of a Bush Administration policy that prevented dozens of writers, educators, and artists with negative views of US foreign and counterterrorism policy from obtaining visas. The American Civil Liberties Union, which praised the move, hopes it is a signal that "such ideological exclusions are now entirely in our past."

The decision paves the way for the professors, Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg and Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University, to apply for visas free of accusations that they have ties to terrorism—charges that both scholars have flatly denied as their visa applications were routinely revoked over the past six years. Habib, a respected South African political analyst and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, told the Associated Press that his most recent visa application was denied for having "engaged in terrorist activity," but he was never told what that activity entailed. The US government denied Ramadan's visa application to accept a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame because he had contributed money to charities that the US believed supported Hamas. Ramadan denies the veracity of this claim.

The ACLU had been representing the professors in court on behalf of the American organizations that invited them to the United States. Those organizations include the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights. Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's national security project, said the orders ending the professors' exclusion were long overdue and tremendously important.

"For several years, the United States government was more interested in stigmatizing and silencing its foreign critics than in engaging them," Jaffer said. "The decision to end the exclusion of Professors Habib and Ramadan is a welcome sign that the Obama administration is committed to facilitating, rather than obstructing, the exchange of ideas across international borders."

Both Habib and Ramadan told reporters they plan to apply for new visas soon. But the two professors are still the exception, not the rule. Dozens of other Muslim intellectuals whose cases are not as high-profile remain banned. 

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About Those Himalayan Glaciers ...

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 4:46 PM EST

Climate skeptics are frothing at the mouth over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's admission this week that it relied on inadequate source material when it claimed in its annual report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035. But while this assessment may have been an exaggeration, it doesn't change the fact that the glaciers are melting—and fast. 

The IPCC's 2007 report stated that, "Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

But it turns out this claim comes from a 2005 report from the World Wildlife Fund, which was in turn based on a quote from a glacier specialist in a 1999 article in The New Scientist. Even worse, the glacier specialist says he was misquoted. While he did say that the glaciers are on the decline, he says he never offered a firm date for their demise. He also said he was referring only to the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas, not the entire mountain range. 

It's bad enough that the IPCC bungled such a key fact wrong. But more problematic is the relevation that the IPCC's judgement on the glaciers was not based on peer-reviewed research and was not properly vetted. Instead, it apparently hinged on a report from an environmental group that rested on a single quote in a decade-old magazine article. The IPCC has acknowledged in a statement that the claim was "poorly substantiated" and that "well-established standards of evidence were not applied properly." Christopher Field, co-chairman of the panel subgroup responsible for the report, said that the IPCC "considers this a very serious issue and we’re working very hard to set the record straight as soon as we can."

Still, this episode doesn't change the fact that a) the majority of the world's glaciers are retreating b) in the foreseeable future, we will witness significant decline of glaciers around the world and c) man-made emissions are causing this to happen. The World Glacier Monitoring Service's 2005 global survey of 442 glaciers found that 398 of them were declining.

"Over the last 30 years I've watched many glaciers shrink in South America. But it's not just isolated to that continent—it's happening globally in Europe, North America, China, and the Himalayas. More than 90 percent of the world's glaciers are receding," said Lonnie Thompson, a research scientist and glaciologist at Ohio State University, in a statement this week. And according to a 2008 study co-authored by Thompson, the Himalayas appear to be warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

So while the IPCC's error is embarrassing, it doesn't change the fact that human activity threatens to melt most of the world's glaciers in the not-so-distant future—just not quite as soon as this particular report claimed.

ACLU Sues for Torture Memos Report

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:25 PM EST

Remember in June, when I told you the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report on the authors of the "torture memos" was due out soon? It was going to be released in "a matter of weeks," Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee. Then, in November, Holder told another Senate panel that the report would come out "by the end of the month." While, it's January now, and the OPR report is nowhere to be found. The American Civil Liberties Union is tired of waiting, so today it filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the release of the report. Maybe that will finally get the Justice Department to keep its promises. Don't count on it, though.

CBS to Air First Super Bowl Abortion Ad

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:19 PM EST

I have a general, albeit sometimes irrational, distaste for quarterbacks. There's something about their deified status, the fact that they're often positioned as Great White Hopes on mostly black teams, their 'me'-in-team attitudes; I admittedly look for reasons to knock them down a peg. Joe Theismann: ridiculous (he changed the pronunciation of his name, 'THEES-man,' to rhyme with Heisman, as in trophy). Joe Montana: privileged (Joe Cool played for the wine-and-cheese 49ers and had the best receivers in the biz). Peyton Manning: whiner (no-huddle does not have to mean all-tantrum). Michael Vick: dog hater (no explanation nec). I could go on, but this isn't a sports' blog, so I'll get on with it:

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 January 2010

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 2:58 PM EST

Catblogging today is a visual metaphor for the dismal week we progressives have been suffering through. It's been raining Old Testament style this week in Southern California, and that means Inkblot doesn't get to go out and play in the morning. Instead, all he can do is stare forlornly out the bleak, gray window, wondering why Daddy won't let him go outside.

Of course, he should know why by now. Daddy did let him go out once or twice earlier in the week and feline opinion was firm: Inkblot. Did. Not. Like. It. At all. Water came out of the sky and fell on his fur! I've told him he should blame it all on Democratic fecklessness and Republican intransigence. And why not? That's what I'm blaming everything else on this week. Might as well get some mileage out of it.

Here's hoping that everyone regains a measure of sanity next week. There's a lot of work to do.