2010 - %3, March

Diplomatic Impunity?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 5:38 PM EST

For years a group representing current and former State Department officials has warned of an "above-the-law" culture that has taken root within the agency's law enforcement division, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. No one paid much attention—and now the State Department could have a major scandal on its hands.

Court records unsealed Tuesday suggest that diplomatic security officers may have worked to impede the investigation into 2007's mass shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square by Blackwater personnel. The New York Times' James Risen unearthed a key exchange, buried in thousands of pages of court transcripts, in which Kenneth Kohl, the lead prosecutor in the case against five former Blackwater guards, recalls an interview with a diplomatic security officer stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad when the episode occurred:

"I talked to David Farrington, who was concerned, who expressed concern about the integrity of the work being done by his fellow officers," Mr. Kohl recalled. He said that Mr. Farrington had said he was in meetings where diplomatic security agents said that after they had gone to the scene and picked up casings and other evidence, "They said we’ve got enough to get these guys off now."

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Obama Defends Risky Trading Ban

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 5:26 PM EST

President Obama looks ready to fight to ensure the survival of his plan to ban risky trading within the same walls as taxpayer-backed US banks, according to draft language from the administration obtained by Reuters today. Obama's proposal would also place limits on the same kinds of trading at other big non-bank institutions, like Goldman Sachs. This new proposal, which will reportedly be sent to lawmakers today, reinforces a tough stance the president took back in January when, standing alongside former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, for whom the idea is named, he called for new safeguards preventing federally-insured banks that take deposits from essentially gambling in venutres like hedge funds and private equity funds.

The proposal for non-banks would involve a cap on their risky trading levels and subjecting them to more enhanced regulation—the latter a proposal sure to irk the financial-services community. According to Reuters, the draft says, "These proposals are part of a comprehensive package of reforms to create a safer, more resilient financial system."

It's unclear right now how much of the Volcker proposals will make it into draft legislation now being hammered out in the Senate banking committee, led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the committee's chairman. Earlier this year, Dodd had lightly criticized the Obama administration for rolling out the proprietary-trading ban, saying the president's proposal "seemed to many to be transparently political." The banking committee is expected to release its financial-reform framework as early as this week. The Volcker Rule has also been downplayed by experts, like former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson, who say a firewall between proprietary trading and more boring banking activities wouldn't get at the root of the problem:

For one thing, proprietary trading is but a small part of what these banks do. For most of the major banks, such activity accounts for less than 5 percent of total revenue—even at Goldman Sachs, which is, in some senses, the largest hedge fund in the world (backed by the US government through its access to the Fed’s discount window), proprietary trading accounts for only around 10 percent of total revenue on average. Even if we could strip this activity from the banks, it would reduce their size only slightly—and the too-big-to-fail banks would find ways to take similar-sized risks because their upside during a boom would still be big, and their downside in a bust would dramatically damage the economy, thereby forcing the government into some sort of rescue.

I'd recommend reading more of Johnson's take on the Volcker plans here. And hearing what Johnson has to say, Obama's continued backing for Volcker's idea looks even more political. We'll have to wait and see whether the Senate banking committee takes a cue from Obama or makes up its own mind on the issue.

EPA Admin Defends Climate Science

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 5:25 PM EST

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said that, if successful, efforts to block her agency’s determination that climate change threatens human health would represent an "enormous step backward for science." Moves to block the agency run against "multiple lines of scientific inquiry" and widespread consensus among climate scientists, she told legislators.

"The science behind climate change is settled," Jackson said.

Jackson, who testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, is currently facing bipartisan legislative challenges to the finding in both the Senate and the House, and legal challenges from a number of polluters and trade groups.

Jackson was questioned closely by Lisa Murkowski, lead sponsor of the Senate resolution that would render the agency's conclusion on climate change null and void. Murkowski accused Jackson of not being clear about the agency’s intentions on climate. While she quoted Jackson calling for comprehensive legislation, she argued that the agency "is basically doing whatever they want."

Jackson maintained that while she does, in fact, prefer comprehensive legislation from Congress – which she’s said numerous times before--the EPA is legally compelled to move forward on regulations, as the Supreme Court directed it to in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, which found the greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. "I would like nothing more than to see Congress enact comprehensive climate and energy legislation," said Jackson. But, she added, "The law compels me as EPA administrator to follow the Supreme Court decision of April 2007. The law says EPA has to move forward. The rule of law and my respect for it demands we have to move forward."

Murkowski wasn’t sated. "I don't know that I'm any more clear based on your statement this morning as to whether or not you think it should be the Congress and those of us that are elected by our constituents and accountable to them to enact and advance climate policy," she said.

Murkowski's efforts to block the agency were matched in the House yesterday with a measure from 79 Republicans. But while Murkowski maintains that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem, just one that Congress should deal with instead of the administration, the House members yesterday launched an all-out assault on the science. Joe Barton (R-Texas), lead sponsor of the measure, called the EPA’s finding "fatally flawed" and "not based on sound science." Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), called CO2 "an essential element for plant growth and life here on this planet that the EPA should not "simply write it off as somehow a pollutant."

Ozone Solution Worsens Warming, Acid Rain

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 5:12 PM EST

We already knew that the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) used to replace ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are proving to be a super greenhouse gas—4,500 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, we're still using them in everything from spray cans to refrigerators to air-conditioners.

Now a new paper in Journal of Physical Chemistry finds that HCFCs may also be increasing acid rain. Computer models show HCFCs break down in the upper atmosphere to form oxalic acid, one culprit in acid rain.

The researchers suggest the new computer model could help determine whether replacements for the replacements are as environmentally friendly as they appear before manufacturers spend billions of dollars marketing them.

The paper's open access online.
 

Massa Sex Scandal: Good for Health Care?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:45 PM EST

President Barack Obama kicked off the final push on health care with a speech at the White House Wednesday. Basically, the plan now is for the House to pass the Senate health care bill, and then for the Senate to pass a package of changes to the bill through the filibuster-proof process known as "reconciliation."

As you know if you've been following this, the big question is whether the Senate bill has the votes to pass the House.

The House passed its health care bill by the narrow margin of 220-215 in November. Since then, three members—two Dems and one Republican—have left the House, and one Democrat, Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, passed away. Theoretically, that brings the vote to 217-214. But Rep. Anh Cao (R-La.), the only Republican to vote for the original bill, has said he won't vote with the Dems again. That makes it 216-215.  As I have previously reported, it seems clear that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the author of the House health care bill's tough anti-abortion language, will oppose the Senate bill because he believes its abortion restrictions are not stringent enough. Stupak claims to have other Dems that previously voted yes on health care reform ready to switch, but House Dem staffers and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have expressed doubts about how many of those people might actually break ranks.

So, until this afternoon, absent any vote switchers other than Stupak, the vote in the House stood 216-215 against the bill.

Then came the news that Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) plans to resign in the wake of allegations that he sexually harrassed a staffer. Despite his avowed liberalism, however, Massa voted against the health care bill the first time around. That makes the vote count 215-215. So while the Massa sex scandal is terrible news for the Democrats narrative-wise, it's actually good news for the health care vote count. It takes away a no vote.

But even Massa's resignation won't be enough to pass the bill. Pelosi will still have to find at least one Democrat who voted against the bill the first time around to switch his or her vote. She'll also have to prevent any Democrats from switching their "yes" votes to "nos"—or find no-to-yeses to offset them. (Rep. Michael Arcuri, a Democrat from New York, told the Utica Observer-Dispatch on Wednesday that, absent "dramatic changes" to the bill, he will switch his "yes" to a "no.")

So where can Pelosi find more potential "yes" votes? On Monday, the Associated Press ran a story listing 10 Democrats who said they were undecided about possibly switching to "yes" votes. And as Jonathan Chait noted at the time, not all Dem "no" votes responded to the AP's query, meaning "the universe of potential N to Ys is larger than 10—the 10 who said they could potentially switch, plus another several who won't say."

The AP story is a useful piece of reporting, but for my money, the best full rundown of all the potential vote switchers is at Daniel Nichanian's Campaign Diaries blog. Check it out.

MoJo LOST Chat: Sundown

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:26 PM EST

Season Six, Episode 6: "Sundown" (March 2)

Creepy. That's probably be the best word to describe last night's bloody, game changing episode, which forever changed the way we'll listen to a popular children's song. What bargain did Flocke (faux Locke) make with Sayid? Is Dogen really gone forever? And for the love of god, will Sun and Jin ever reunite?

To help four MoJo staffers dissect it all, we invited Mac Slocum from the popular Filmfodder blog to join in. Thanks, Mac! Read the chat below, and tune in for more guest bloggers in the coming weeks.

Jen Phillips, Assistant Editor: Hey everyone.
Laurin Asdal, Director of Development: Howdy.
Nikki Gloudeman, New Media Fellow: Mac, thanks so much for joining us!
Mac Slocum, Lost blogger: You bet! Thanks for having me.
Nikki: So last night's episode...wow, yeah? I'd say creepiest in the history of the show.
Mac: Uh, yeah. It got dark in those closing moments.
Samantha Schaberg, Administrative Assistant: I loved the music.
Nikki: Freakiest version of that children's song. Gave me chills. Also: No more temple, hooray!
Mac: Yeah, thank God for that. The Epcot Temple needed to go.
Nikki: Yes it was pretty lame. Now it's fight time in the jungle. Much more interesting.
Laurin: Bring it back to the beginning.
Ben Buchwalter, Editorial Fellow: It's gonna. be. crazy.

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Obama's Fired Up. Finally?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:24 PM EST

On Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama gave a fiery speech to kick off what he no doubt hopes is the endgame for health care reform—or, as the White House has been calling it, health insurance reform. It was a rather belated recognition that the only way he's going to get anything passed is by rolling the Republicans. Putting aside the issue of partisanship, last week's health care summit demonstrated that there is a huge policy and ideological divide between the Ds and Rs over what to do about the nation's troubled health care system. This gap cannot be bridged by the usual cut-the-difference legislative compromises. It is more of an either/or situation. Obama and the Dems want to remake the private insurance system (still keeping it private), and the Republicans do not. So if the president and the Democrats are serious about what they say, they have no choice but to embrace a DIY approach to the legislation. That is, reconciliation—with no apologies.

Obama did look a bit fed-up. But he has no one to blame but himself. (I'm giving Rahm Emanuel a pass.) Obama has reached a conclusion a year into his presidency that seemed rather obvious to others last spring. Think of all the time the White House wasted negotiating with Republicans, both before and after Sen. Max Baucus, the uninspiring chair of the finance committee, led a painfully slow mark-up of a bill that concluded with not one GOP vote.

"Let's get it done," an impatient-sounding Obama said at the end of his remarks. But though the bills on the Hill are in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are counting votes and figuring out how to finesse the reconciliation process, it really is up to Obama to lead the way. He will have to lean on reluctant Democrats—on the right and the left—and serve as The Enforcer for any arrangement reached between Pelosi and Reid on how to proceed. That accord might compel House Democrats to vote for the Senate bill before it is tweaked to their liking via reconciliation, meaning the House Ds will be worrying that that their Senate comrades might pull the rug out from under them by failing to pass those tweaks afterward. Obama will have to be the guarantor.

For months, the president allowed the messy legislative process to dribble along on its own. He refused to take sides on various issues. He declined to state his preferences for assorted provisions. He deferred to the legislators. Now he has to take charge. He is the one he has been waiting for.

Please Just Stop, Sarah Palin

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:05 PM EST

It feels as if Sarah Palin's been attacking Fox's "Family Guy" longer than she was governor of Alaska. Last night, a desperate-for-ratings Jay Leno gave her another forum to vent about a single line in a February episode of the comedy show. (One of the characters, a learning disabled woman, refers to her mother as "the former governor of Alaska." Palin took that as a dig against her son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome, and happily played the victim via a note on her Facebook account.)

Given the golden opportunity, Palin flat-out lied to Leno:

"...I commented and then that gets out there in the blogosphere, it gets out there in the different forms of the mediums that we have today. And then it's left there, not an opportunity for me to follow up and kind of elaborate on what I really meant and what I really thought of the thing."

Before Mr. Leno went to a commercial break, Ms. Palin said that a fuller opportunity to discuss the incident would have led to a "much healthier dialogue." After the commercial, she did not expand on her remarks. (H/T to the New York Times via The Daily Dish.)

Funny, since we all seem to remember her 6-minute tirade on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" last month, when she went on at length about the "Family Guy" fake controversy, then parsed Rahm Emanuel's and Rush Limbaugh's uses of the word "retard." She also took the chance to rail against "the Hollywood Fox," apparently to differentiate it from the more-authentically American Wasilla Fox studio.

What's More Important: White House Pastries or Nuclear Weapons?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:01 PM EST

It's not often you get to write a column that covers White House pastry desserts and nuclear weapons policy. But I had that opportunity today with my DailyPolitics.com gig. And that column went something like this:

On Monday, as I walked to the White House for the daily press briefing, I bumped into a Canadian journalist who was heading there as well, and we engaged in a common practice: guessing what topic would dominate the questions for press secretary Robert Gibbs. Health care, I said, explaining that this was still the main narrative of Washington's political theater: Would President Obama resolve to use the reconciliation procedure to push his health care overhaul over the finish line? "Not the new Nuclear Posture Review?" she asked, almost incredulously. I chuckled and politely shook my head. "But it's on the front page of The New York Times," she exclaimed.

Indeed it was. That day, Times reporter David Sanger was reporting that Obama was putting the finishing touches on a nuclear weapons policy review that would seek to reduce the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads but that would reject a proposal long-advocated by arms controllers -- for the United States to declare it would never be the first to launch nuclear weapons. The article noted that Obama has yet to resolve a crucial matter: Would the United States reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical attack, even if the attacker were a country that didn't possess nuclear weapons? Also under consideration, the Times noted, is withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons -- essentially, smaller nukes on smaller missiles -- now based in Europe. The big issue, not yet decided, is whether Obama should declare that the "sole purpose" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter any other nation from firing nuclear weapons at us, or whether he should leave some wiggle room so the U.S. could use its nukes in another extreme situation.

Tying a Rock to the Economy

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 3:01 PM EST

Jim Bunning's ostensible reason for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits was one of fiscal rectitude: he wanted the benefits paid for instead of added to the deficit. For some reason I haven't noticed anyone pointing out how dumb this is, but CBPP does the job today:

The widespread and significant decline in economic activity that defines a recession ended sometime this past summer, and the economy is in the early stages of recovery. That is good news, but it does not mean that the economy no longer needs stimulus. The economy is just beginning to climb out of the longest and most severe recession since the Great Depression. Without additional stimulus, and soon, many economists fear that the pace of recovery will be particularly sluggish — and the economy could even fall back into recession.

....At a time when many people want to work but cannot find jobs and the demand for goods and services falls well short of what businesses are capable of supplying, the key to boosting economic activity and strengthening the fragile recovery is to create additional demand....For Congress to require contemporaneous cuts in federal spending or tax increases so that measures to boost the economy do not increase short-term deficits would be unwise and counter-productive — it would reduce the overall demand for goods and services and thereby partially or fully cancel out the economic boost that the recovery measures were designed to provide.

This is a little bloodless, as befits a policy shop full of economist wonks. So let's translate into bloggish: Bunning is a moron. The goal of stimulus spending is to increase the federal deficit. Paying for it misses the whole point. It's like putting high-test fuel in your car and then tying a lead weight to your bumper so you can't accelerate too fast.1

This is especially noteworthy in light of a recent research note from Joshua Aizenman and Gurnain Kaur Pasricha suggesting that "the aggregate fiscal expenditure stimulus in the United States, properly adjusted for the declining fiscal expenditure of the fifty states, was close to zero in 2009." That is, federal spending went up but state and local spending went down, for a net stimulus of zero. (Via Tyler Cowen.)

To sumarize, then: not only is Jim Bunning a cranky old man who held the entire Senate hostage just because he could, he's a cranky old man whose grasp of economics is nonexistent. And even at that, there were at least half a dozen Republicans who actively supported his cranky tirade and virtually none who did anything to actively fight it. Quite a party they have there.

1As CBPP points out, we should be doing something credible to rein in our long-term deficits. But that has very little to do with running short-term deficits to fund emergency stimulus during a recession.