2010 - %3, March

RNC "Investigating" Sex Club Romp

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 12:49 PM PDT

The Daily Caller, as we like to say in this business, buried the lede. I mean, so what if higher-ups in the Republican National Committee may or may not have been talking about arranging for a private jet for RNC chair Michael Steele. Who would be surprised? The Tea Partiers? They already think the mainstream GOP is out of touch.

Equally unsurprising but a lot more fun was the revelation of FEC expense reports showing that the RNC had dropped cash on a bondage club where the strippers simulate real live lesbians! And this for the Party of No Gay Sex, of no gay marriage, of no gays in the military, of no sex of any kind outside marriage.

The Caller mentioned it in passing:

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.

Details, man! We need details.

The Daily Beast had a few: "The RNC denies that Steele himself visited the club, saying that it was "a reimbursement made to a non-committee staffer. The RNC is also investigating the claim."

I'll bet they're investigating. In any case, the Beast also mentioned that the expense report was filed by one Erik Brown—who is about to become a little less obscure—for a couple of weeks at least.

The DNC is loving it, according to the Baltimore Sun's Maryland Politics blog:

The Democratic National Committee is having a field day Monday at the expense of its cross-town rivals at the RNC—or the "Risque National Committee," as the Dems put it in one of the blizzard of e-mailed releases they are sending out.

The RNC also claimed the Daily Caller piece was "riddled with misleading information and inaccuracies." But Steele & Co. didn't deny reimbursing the expense for "meals" at Voyeur West Hollywood. In fact, according to a Washington Post blogger, the RNC now wants its money back.

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Cap and Trade is Dead. Long Live Cap and Trade!

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 12:46 PM PDT

Last week, John Broder penned a piece in the New York Times on the "demise of cap-and-trade," since mention of it has been almost completely axed from the Senate discussions. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also reiterated his belief that it's dead and gone. "It’s been beaten to death," he said, adding, "I think it’s an idea that needs to die."

In reality, the death of cap and trade is mostly rhetorical. The bill that Graham, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman are expected to introduce next month will still include a cap on major emitters and a trading component, though it's likely to be more limited than the House-passed bill. So Graham can keep declaring it dead, even if that doesn’t really mean all that much in practice.

Actually, the term "cap and trade" died a while ago. In the debate over the House bill, it was rarely discussed, apart from Republicans slamming it as "cap and tax." In the previous Senate bill offered by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, they dropped the phrase in favor of "Global Warming Pollution Reduction and Investment program."

What’s interesting is how politically undesirable "cap and trade" has become in recent months. What happened to make cap and trade politically toxic in Washington in just the nine months since the House passed its version of the policy? Broder posits that the term "was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity." Those are factors, yes, but I think Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Kennedy School has a better reading. He concludes, basically, that the problem wasn't the phrase or even the idea itself:

But the most important factor--by far--which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress. This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but--more important--it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.
The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

This argument puts Graham, Kerry and Lieberman's contortions to convince us that a) cap and trade is dead and b) their proposal offers something totally different in a new light. The problem isn’t the language; it’s that the American public still isn't convinced that climate change is a problem that urgently needs to be acted upon, or that any of Washington’s proposed solutions are viable. That’s where the real change needs to happen—not in the rhetorical packaging.

Hannity's Charity Under Fire

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 12:30 PM PDT

Sean Hannity is proud of noting that "every penny" from his Freedom Concerts goes to scholarships for the children of killed or injured veterans. But in a legal complaint filed today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and VoteVets dispute that claim.

The concerts, which are presented by the Fox News star and feature entertainers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, purportedly donate their entire proceeds to Freedom Alliance, a non-profit led by Lt. Col. Oliver North. In turn, Freedom Alliance says it directs all of this money to a scholarship program for veterans' kids. "Every penny, 100 percent of the donations are applied to the Freedom Alliance scholarship fund," Hannity has claimed. North has made similar statements, remarking, "There's no overhead. There's no expenses taken out. Every penny that's donated or that's raised through things like the Freedom Concerts goes to the scholarship fund." (A giant "Thank you! Sean Hannity" currently appears on Freedom Alliance's homepage.)

CREW's complaint, lodged with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), alleges that Hannity and Freedom Concerts have been dishonest in suggesting that the entirety of the revenues from ticket sales goes straight to a scholarship fund. Freedom Alliance does not actually manage the concerts, Crew discovered via a Freedom of Information request and promotional materials. Instead, they're organized by a middleman—a promotional company called Premiere Marketing. The firm is headed by Duane Ward, who is also the president of Premiere Motivational Speakers Bureau, which represents both Hannity and North and has a "long history in conservative activism." Ward previously worked for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and ran North's legal defense fund following the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s. Premiere in turn donates an "unknown portion of the concert proceeds to the Freedom Alliance," alleges CREW. "We have no idea how much money it actually is," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan told reporters on Monday. But CREW argues that Hannity and Freedom Alliance's claims that the revenues go directly to scholarships amounts to "illegal and deceptive marketing practices."

Ocean Bugs Eat Plastic?

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 12:29 PM PDT

Researchers are zeroing in on marine microbes that may help clean up some of the 127 million tons of "disposable" plastic produced every year, 10 percent of which ends up in the ocean. Early research from the University of Sheffield and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science finds:

  • The marine microbe groups that can grow on plastic waste are significantly different from the microbial groups that colonize natural ocean surfaces.
  • This suggests that plastic-associated marine microbes have different metabolic activities that could contribute to the breakdown of plastics or of the toxic chemicals associated with them.

This is the first DNA-based study to investigate how microbes interact with plastic. Specifically, the team investigated the attachment of microbes to fragments of polyethylene, the plastic commonly used for shopping bags. They found the plastic was rapidly colonized by multiple—though not every—species of bacteria, which congregated into a biofilm on the surface of the plastic.

Next, they'll investigate how the microbial interaction with microplastics varies across habitats on coastal seabed—research the team believes could have huge environmental benefits. Researcher Jesse Harrison presented their early findings at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh:

"Microbes play a key role in the sustaining of all marine life and are the most likely of all organisms to break down toxic chemicals, or even the plastics themselves. This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of plastic pollution."
 

For More on Congo

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 12:28 PM PDT

Today Mother Jones is giving the Internet the gift of Adam Hochschild’s amazing Congo piece, from the March/April issue, about how what we buy makes Congo so f'ed, along with an accompanying slideshow from photographer Marcus Bleasdale. For even more of his pictures, which are invariably haunting, or gorgeous, or both, and for a description of what Bleasdale saw in his own words, check out this dispatch:

Then, before you wholly descend into a pit of despair, listen to a Human Rights Watch senior researcher break down, in just two minutes, how other nations can help curb the carnage.

 

Oath Keepers: Hutaree 'Set Up'

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 11:57 AM PDT

These guys make the Oath Keepers look like model citizens. The FBI raided a Michigan-based Christian militia group this weekend for allegedly plotting a campaign of violence against police officers, and to use WMD against Americans. The Feds claim the Hutaree "conspired to oppose by force the authority of the U.S. government."

According to the indictment, "Hutaree members view local, state, and federal law enforcement as the 'brotherhood,' their enemy, and have been preparing to engage them in armed conflict." So in order to oppose the government, the Hutaree targeted one of the Oath Keepers' core consituencies: police officers.

You'd think this would turn Oath Keepers against this anti-cop militia. But according to initial responses on the group's website, the anti-government ethos is strong enough to dispel "rumors" propagated by the mainstream media. Members were quick to call the raids a "set up" and potentially the start of a government crackdown on militias (which are constitutionally legal). Eric Hansen, for one, notes that the FBI raided a funeral where Hutaree members were "paying respects for a member who died recently."

That sounds heartless. Until you look at the Hutaree's detailed strategy to kill police officers. According to federal prosecutors, the Hutaree planned to murder a cop and detonate explosives at his funeral to increase the police body count. The indictment also states that the group planned to threaten police families, and place fake 911 calls luring cops into danger.

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Lede of the Day

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 11:50 AM PDT

Lots of people tied for this award today, but let's give it to the Washington Post's Dan Eggen:

The Republican National Committee gave nearly $2,000 to a Southern California GOP contributor for meal expenses at Voyeur West Hollywood, a lesbian-themed California nightclub that features topless dancers wearing horse-bits and other bondage gear, according to newly filed disclosure records.

Here's what I don't get. Everyone knows that party expenditures are reported to the FEC quarterly and made public. So it's not like this stuff has any chance of staying private. And yet, every few months we see yet another idiotic expenditure like this. What's up with these guys?

Not that I want to put "these guys" into the same class as RNC chairman Michael Steele. Has any party ever had such a feckless, embarrassing chairman in recent memory? He's a real piece of work. I'm counting on the New York Post to come up with a good headline for this.

A Measles Mystery

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 10:43 AM PDT

Via Dave Munger, David Gorski takes on some dishonest graphs from the anti-vaccine crowd purporting to show that vaccines don't keep anyone from getting sick. One problem: they use falling death rates in the pre-vaccine era to show that communicable diseases were dying off even before vaccines were introduced. But this isn't the same thing as incidence rates. Better medicine can reduce the number of people dying even if the same number of people are still getting sick. Then Gorski takes on a graph of Canadian data that does use incidence rates, in this case showing that the incidence of measles in Canada dropped steadily between the 30s and the 60s, even before the measles vaccine was introduced:

I was immediately suspicious of this graph, though. The reason should be obvious; the decline in measles incidence is far too smooth. Measles incidence typically varies greatly from year to year. Fortunately, in his chutzpah, Obomsawin included a link to the actual source of the graph. Naturally, I couldn’t resist checking it out, and I found that the link leads to the Canadian Immunization Guide section on the measles vaccine. And this is the actual graph from which Obomsawin allegedly extracted his data [It's the orange chart above. –ed.]

Note how Obomsawin left out a section of eight years when measles was not nationally reportable. Also note how he has, to be charitable, cherry picked the years to produce the impression of a smoothly declining measles incidence from 1935 to 1959. As I said, it doesn’t get much more intellectually dishonest than that.

OK. But this still provokes a question: Before 1950 measles incidence was about the same in Canada and the United States. (The charts use different measurements but they represent about the same incidence rate.) So why did measles incidence in Canada drop dramatically between 1950-1960 while it stayed steady in the U.S.? Did Canada do something else around 1950 to reduce measles exposure? Or what? Because it sure looks like something happened north of the border.

Yodeling Echo of R. Kelly (VIDEO)

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 10:05 AM PDT

Ever wonder what's going on with R. Kelly, onetime White House visitor and all-time master of the R&B sex jam, who was once jammed in the slammer for sex (with a minor)? He introduced his new video, "Echo," via Twitter late last week and it's certainly gone viral—though not in the way one might associate Kelly with that term.

"Echo" is the typical R. Kelly hook, a stereophonic display of his confusion between a metaphor for sex and the sex itself. Here there is no one to remind him of his jeep, no key for his ignition, no belief in flight, no closet in which to be trapped. There is only Robert. And The Sound of Music.

It's true: R. Kelly yodels. He brings the hills to life with the sound of his music. (That's a literal, not metaphorical, compliment—watch the video.)

In this strangely earnest twist on the Julie Andrews camp classic, R. Kelly is somehow endearing—ever the suave, sweet misogynist with a sex craze ready to objectify anything that moves...or fails to move quickly enough. In our pomographic, sex-addled, pop-edge music world, he is the male yin to Lady Gaga's yang, right down to the ridiculous glasses.

Here's a sampling of his lyrics, with the full video below:

Climate Bill Losing Support on the Left

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 9:33 AM PDT

As John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continue to court industry support for a climate and energy bill, the Senate's left flank is growing increasingly uneasy.

Last week, 10 senators sent a letter to the trio urging them to drop provisions that would expand offshore drilling. Today, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders sent Kerry a letter expressing his "deep disappointment with the direction of the current effort." While he praises Kerry as a "tireless advocate for taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Sanders says he has "serious concerns about provisions that could harm the environment and provide new federal government support for polluters."

Sanders is particularly worried about a proposed provision that would nullify existing state programs to limit emissions. Vermont is among those states that have paved the way for national carbon regulations, and the bill would remove the ability of states to set tougher restrictions on carbon dioxide than those passed by the federal government. Sanders describes this as "a huge mistake," writing that "we should definitely set a floor, but not a ceiling." He also expresses reservations about new loan guarantees for nuclear power, expanded offshore drilling, and the bill’s likely giveaways to coal. "I do not want to see a global warming bill become an bonanza for the coal industry," he writes.

Sanders is also worried about what's not in the outline of the bill that the senators are circulating. In particular, he thinks that their plan doesn't do enough to promote energy efficiency, develop a renewable energy industry, and provide incentives for green jobs.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman clearly believe that the industry support is crucial to winning 60 votes for a climate bill this year. But in this effort, they're neglecting the Senate's environmental champions. As one Democratic aide told me recently, "They've pretty much ignored the whole left wing … They just take everyone for granted."

Lieberman brushed off such criticisms last week, telling reporters, "In the end this will be one of those cases where everybody will be a little unhappy… But if they’re mostly happy that we've done something constructive, it will pass." Maybe Lieberman's right. But at the moment, the senators who should be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for this effort are sitting disgruntled on the sidelines.