2010 - %3, February

More On the CPAC Gay-Basher

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 9:18 AM EST

Media Matters has the full video of Ryan Sorba's rant at CPAC Friday night. He's the young man who used his two minutes to address the thousands of people gathered in DC to bash conference organizers for letting a gay conservative group staff a table in the exhibit hall. Turns out this wasn't the first time Sorba has riled up a crowd with his views on gay civil rights. The representative of the California Young Americans for Freedom spends his time going around to college campuses lecturing on the "Born Gay Hoax." Two years ago, his speech at Smith College was shut down by protesters, which explains why he dismissed hecklers at CPAC by saying, "the lesbians at Smith College protest better than you!" Apparently CPAC organizers consider his presence another example of their inclusiveness.

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Obama's New Housing Band-Aid

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Is President Obama's latest foreclosure fix, a $1.5 billion program targeting hard-hit states, another boondoggle in his housing rescue?

Earlier today, Obama announced in Las Vegas the program to tackling the housing crisis in states like Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and a few others by asking state and local Housing Finance Agencies, or HFAs, to create innovative new ways to address mounting foreclosures tailored to their areas. HFAs, in Obama's new plan, will submit program designs to the Treasury Department specifically geared to help homeowners who're unemployed, underwater (they owe more than their home is worth), or grappling with second mortgages on their homes. The $1.5 billion in funding will come from the bailout bill passed in 2008 that set aside $50 billion for housing-related programs, including the Home Affordable Modification Program. "The funding announced today will help target resources to those hardest hit markets, promoting innovation that tailors programs to meet local needs and complementing our national foreclosure relief efforts," said Shaun Donovan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The new program arrives at something of a crossroads for the housing industry. While a report by credit analyst TransUnion earlier this week found that mortgage delinquencies—traditionally a precursor to foreclosures—were at record levels, statistics released today by the Mortgage Bankers Association suggest that, as the organization's chief economist put it, we've reached "the beginning of the end" of the foreclosure crisis. Fewer people, the MBA found, are late on their loan payments, which points to a potential upturn on the horizon. With that in mind, Obama's new program could be a catalyst in that budding recovery.

Lending experts, however, voiced doubts over whether the program will really do all that much. "This latest effort is just a Band-Aid," said Kathleen Day with the Center for Responsible Lending. Day said what's needed is a housing relief program in which loan modifications are mandatory, which isn't the case with the multi-billion dollar Home Affordable Modification Program, Obama's flagship relief program. Running with the medical theme, Day went on to say, "Every additional Band-Aid helps, but we need take a more wholistic view of the patient and need a more fundamental diagnosis and prognosis."

But even this new Band-Aid is no guarantee to stop the bleeding in the housing market. As Herb Allison, the Treasury's TARP czar, told reporters in a conference call today, the new $1.5 billion program was created to "foster innovation" and promote outside-the-box ways for addressing housing problems specific to hard-hit areas but potentially applicable on a national level. Innovation, however, is no easy, quick task, and to think that HFAs will generate novel ideas for stemming foreclosures in a month or two is probably wishful thinking. Allison said rules on the program would be issued in two weeks, and that the application process would begin sometime after that, though he declined to elaborate further. All of which is say, even if Obama's new housing Band-Aid generates smart new ideas for helping homeowners, it won't be happening anytime particularly soon.

Regulate 'Em All

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 10:42 PM EST

Billionaire private equity honcho Stephen Schwarzman thinks that bankers are being unfairly pilloried:

If there is one common theme that I have heard in conversations with senior bank executives over the past several months, it is that their fundamental business model is under siege. They are uncertain about [blah blah blah]. These uncertainties have severely hampered banking executives' ability to plan how to run their businesses or even know what their businesses may include. Predictably, bankers are reacting to this unprecedented uncertainty by becoming conservative and cautious. The result is that there is less lending and less credit available.

....It is important to remember that a variety of actors helped create the financial crisis....Regulators permitted dramatic increases in leverage at investment banks, and billions of dollars of debt stayed off some banks' balance sheets. There was failure at virtually every level of regulatory oversight, including, critically, minimal controls over mortgage brokers, who encouraged many subprime borrowers to contract for houses or take out additional loans that they could never afford.

Tim Fernholz is unimpressed:

Doesn't it sound like a burglar complaining a robbery was not his fault because the cops weren't watching the house closely enough? Schwarzman seems to forget that regulators permitted these bad actions in response to financial sector lobbying — it's not like the regulators just up and announced absurd leverage requirements without outside pressure.

Yep. Financiers will do whatever the law allows them to. And they'll always push to make the laws as friendly as possible. That's just human nature and it's not going to change. Which is exactly why Congress ought to start ignoring them and begin passing laws to rein them in, just like Stephen Schwarzman apparently thinks they should. After all, if you want to cut down on speeding, you don't just sit around complaining about how reckless people are. You pass a law against speeding and then staff up the highway patrol.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Schwarzman's op-ed is actually even more damning than Tim suggests. Schwarzman's point isn't just that there was regulatory failure, his point is that there were huge failures everywhere in the financial industry. He's right! But far from exonerating bankers, it's exactly why regulatory reform ought to be broad and sweeping. His op-ed is an argument for regulating bankers and everyone else too.

Murkowski Teams With the Chamber

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 9:52 PM EST

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is heading up Senate efforts to stymie the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of carbon dioxide, while the Chamber of Commerce last week kicked off a legal attack on the forthcoming rules. Now, Murkowski and the Chamber are joining forces on plans to bar the agency from regulating planet-warming gases.

The senator will join Chamber members on a conference call next Thursday to discuss her efforts to block the EPA regulations, the Chamber announced in an invitation on Friday. "Join in this worthwhile opportunity to hear an overview of the EPA's move toward regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, its burdensome effects on business, and Congress' response to the move," reads the invitation, which Mother Jones obtained.

"Senator Murkowski has introduced bipartisan legislation to allow time for Congress to address the climate change issue and prevent the EPA from moving forward with a regulatory scheme to regulate greenhouse gases under the ill-suited framework of the Clean Air Act," it continues. "On January 14, the first major step of that process—an EPA final rule concluding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare—took effect, and with it the obligation to move forward with what could easily become the most expensive and intrusive set of regulations in history. The implementation of these rules will have a significant impact on the economy and small businesses."

Murkowski has faced criticism for working with energy lobbyists on previous efforts to block the EPA. Her most recent motion to prevent the agency from regulating carbon dioxide has also received support from some Democrats, is expected to be voted on next month.

What the Frack, Halliburton?

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 9:34 PM EST

Is Halliburton injecting diesel fuel into your drinking water? According to documents from a congressional investigation released yesterday, the oil and gas giant in 2008 admitted to using more than 807,000 gallons of diesel-based chemicals in fluids used for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that uses a high-pressure blast of chemical compounds, sand, and water to fracture rock and access natural gas reserves. In 2005, the industry successfully lobbied to have fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now the fear is that these toxic chemicals may be leaching into wells and contaminating the water you drink.

In response to an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released yesterday, Halliburton and BJ Services, another major oil field services company, reported using other toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene in fracking fluids. Even though the natural gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, it's still required to limit the amount of diesel used in fracturing, under a December 2003 agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. Halliburton and BJ Services appear to have violated the agreement, according to yesterday's disclosure. 

A report released last month by the Environmental Working Group found that single wells have been found to contain enough benzene and other toxins to contaminate the amount of water New York state uses in a day. And natural gas use is only set to rise if there's a climate bill—it emits 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 45 percent less than coal.

The Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday announced a wider probe of the controversial process. And Colorado Rep. Diane Degette (D) is sponsoring House legislation that would bring fracking materials back the Safe Drinking Water Act and require companies to make public the chemicals they use. But the industry has, for the most part, battled to evade disclosure requirements—arguing that the compounds are proprietary information that could compromise what is becoming an increasingly lucrative business. 

Sarah Palin’s Family Guy Faux Pas

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 9:15 PM EST

Fresh from the fray of "Retardgate," as some media outlets called it, Sarah Palin this week sought to expose another dark and insidious force aligned against her. By which she meant an episode of the TV cartoon Family Guy. On the episode in question, the awkward teen character Chris Griffin dates a girl who has Down syndrome—and at one point identifies her mother as "the former governor of Alaska."

Palin chose one of her preferred media forums—her Facebook page—to argue that the line of dialogue "mocked" her special-needs son, Trig. She called it "another kick in the gut," powerful language that's apparently calculated to remind us she's been hurt before, and the blows are felt most in that part of the body where intuitions—and babies—come from. In effect, she's saying the blows are an attack on common sense, disabled children and womankind.

But irony is a harsh master: the cartoon character in question was voiced by a woman with Down syndrome, professional actress Andrea Fay Friedman, and she thinks Palin is the one who lacks common sense—or at least "a sense of humor" or "sarcasm."

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Yoo Lawyer: OPR Acting Like "Junior Varsity CIA"

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:55 PM EST

If you want to get a sense of the tone of John Yoo's response to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility report finding he was guilty of "professional misconduct," take a look at this excerpt from his lawyer's letter to the OPR:

[The Office of Legal Counsel]'s job was to give legal advice based on the facts as presented by the Central Intelligence Agency, not to assume the role (as OPR now has) of Junior Varsity CIA. OPR appears to think that the proper role of OLC attorneys was to reweigh the operational facts adduced by the CIA and play roulette with the lives of thousands of Americans.

That's right: any questioning of the CIA's reliance on the 'ticking time bomb' scenario amounts to risking the lives of thousands of Americans. Yoo's lawyer, by the way, is Miguel Estrada. Yes, that one.

OPR: "Not a Routine Investigation"

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:55 PM EST

The Office of Professional Responsibility report on the Bush administration's torture memos—released at long last this evening, completely bollixing this reporter's plans for after work cocktails—is remarkable on a number of levels, not least the duration it took to put together. The report was almost five years in the making. What took so damn long? "This was not a routine investigation," the report notes, going on to detail a laundry list of complications. One was the deletion of the email records of Office of Legal Counsel officials John Yoo and Patrick Philbin. (Sound familiar?)

The report elaborates in a footnote:

OLC initially provided us with a relatively small number of emails, files, and draft documents. After it became apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing, we requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of [REDACTED], Yoo, Philbin, [Assistant Attorney General Jay] Bybee, and [Assistant Attorney General Jack] Goldsmith. However, we were told that most of Yoo's email records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin's email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002—the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo...was created—had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable.

Congress to Hold Hearings on "Torture Memos" Report

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:29 PM EST

On Friday, the DOJ released a June 2009 Office of Professional Responsibility report finding that two Bush lawyers, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, were guilty of "professional misconduct" in their construction of the memos. But the OPR report was accompanied by a 69-page memo, written in January 2010 by a top Justice Department, that negated the report's "misconduct" finding and said Yoo and Bybee were guilty only of "poor judgement."

Both the House and Senate judiciary committees are planning hearings on the Justice Department's review of Bush administration lawyers' involvement in the crafting of the so-called "torture memos." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the House commitee, "intends to hold a hearing on these matters shortly," according to a press release. "Today’s report makes plain that those memos were legally flawed and fundamentally unsound," Conyers said in the release. "Even worse, it reveals that the memos were not the independent product of the Department of Justice, but were shaped by top officials of the Bush White House." The lawyers who wrote the memos "wdishonored their office and the entire Department of Justice," Conyers said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who runs the Senate committee, has already scheduled a hearing for next Friday. In a statement, Leahy accused the Bush lawyers of taking a "premeditated approach in constructing the legal underpinnings of seriously flawed national security policies." Leahy also echoed human rights groups' concerns about Bybee continuing in his current position as a federal appeals court judge. "If the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate, knew of Judge Bybee’s role in creating these policies, he would have never been confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the federal bench," he said. "The right thing to do would be for him to resign from this lifetime appointment."

No witnesses have been announced, but Bybee and Yoo could both conceivably be asked to testify.

CCR: Impeach "Torture Memos" Judge

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:06 PM EST

Now that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility report on "torture memos" authors John Yoo and Jay Bybee is out, the Center for Constitutional Rights is calling for action. Specifically, the human rights group wants Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, to be impeached. From the group's statement:

Among others, the lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury have caused incalculable damage to our country and to thousands of victims as a result of the twisted legal advice they provided while at the Office of Legal Counsel. The OLC opinions were intended to provide legal cover for what everyone knew was illegal conduct. They advised the establishment of the prison at Guantanamo outside the law through the purposeful evasion of the Geneva Conventions and they advised the creation of a secret detention network for “enhanced interrogations” in flagrant violation of domestic and international law. Once unthinkable, they authorized and justified torture, rendition and secret CIA detention, often in a hands-on manner so detailed that it gives the lie to the notion they were giving abstract legal advice rather than making policy decisions to use torture.

Ultimately Jay Bybee must be impeached, tried and removed from his seat as a federal judge on the 9th Circuit, but he should have the decency to resign immediately.

If Bybee could bring himself to sign the memos, I doubt he'll find the "decency" to resign now just because the OPR report is out.