2010 - %3, March

Green Groups Go After Blanche Lincoln

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 2:14 PM EST

Blanche Lincoln is one of three Senate Democrats so far to officially back a GOP effort to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. And now she's taking the heat for it: Environmental groups are gearing up in force to oppose the Arkansas senator's campaign for reelection in November. 

The Sierra Club blasts Lincoln in new ads released in Arkansas Tuesday for "backing this Big Oil bailout"—referring to the anti-EPA measure. This is the second round of radio ads Sierra Club has launched against Lincoln, who has become a stalking horse for green groups to discourage other moderate Democrats from following her lead.

The ads come as Lincoln’s latest primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, has received an outpouring of support from the liberal netroots. Since he announced his candidacy on Monday, he has pulled in $1 million through MoveOn.org, Progressive Campaign Change Committee, Democracy for America, and DailyKos. The AFL-CIO has also pledged $3 million to his challenge. While green groups aren't yet out campaigning for Halter, they’re expressing tentative support for him—and outright disdain for Lincoln.

"I think she’s getting what she deserves on this," Tony Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs and public education at the League of Conservation Voters told Mother Jones. The group launched the first environmental attack on Lincoln in January, putting her atop their annual "Dirty Dozen" list of lawmakers who are sympathetic to polluters. "So far we like what we see from Bill Halter," said Massaro, although he stopped short of endorsing him, noting that the group didn't yet have enough information about his positions on environmental issues. The League of Conservation Voters expects to decide whether to endorse him by the end of the month. "That said," Massaro added, "we clearly don’t want Blanche Lincoln back."

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MoJo Nominated for Online Awards

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Hooray for us! Starting this year the American Society of Magazine Editors has decided to start handing out awards for online media, and Mother Jones has been nominated in two categories: news reporting (along with BusinessWeek, Slate, Time, and the Virginia Quarterly Review) and blogging (along with the Atlantic, the Economist, Foreign Policy, and the New Yorker). Wish us luck. Full list of nominees here.

So How's the Economy Doing?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:33 PM EST

Email from a friend involved in the legal end of the commercial real estate market:

We just had yet another lender pull the plug on a commercial real estate deal that was set to go.  The stated reason was minor and technical.  The real reason we're guessing is that it has too many underwater loans on its books and simply doesn't have the resources.

So what is happening now?  Remember the doom and gloom scenario of mass foreclosures by banks to get the bad commercial real estate loans off their books?  Well, if my purely anecdotal experience with the first few months of 2010 are any indication, that scenario will not be happening any time soon — which is a bad thing.  It will not be a dramatic cascade but a slow tentative process with limited positive impact on the economy.

Instead, it appears that banks are continuing to grant very long deferments rather than take the loans down.  The logic here is bizarre, but understandable I guess.  They are punting on the issue until the economy improves, which they are betting is next year or so.  But if they don't get the bad loans off their books, they can't free up their resources to provide the necessary new financing to recharge the economy.  Then next year they'll punt again.  And the vicious circle continues. I'm not sure what the government can do here, but I sure hope there is some creative thinking going on in D.C.

It's just a single data point, but I'll bet there's a lot of similar stories out there. We may have saved the banking system last year, but it's still in pretty fragile shape.

What Is The Nuclear Option?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:31 PM EST

The nuclear option | Flickr/Epic Fireworks (Creative Commons).The nuclear option | Flickr/Epic Fireworks (Creative Commons)."The nuclear option" is a term that was invented by Republican politicians in 2005 to describe their threat to change Senate rules to do away with filibusters of judicial nominees. But GOP media consultants soon decided the term was a political liability, and Republicans started to refer to it as a "smear" term created by Democrats. Then, as TPM reported at the time, Republicans "fann[ed] out to editorial rooms around Washington and New York, attempting to ban the phrase 'nuclear option' from print and airwave, unless it is duly noted as a Democrat-created smear phrase."

Now, in 2010, Republicans are once again counting on short memories (the media's and the public's) to redefine the history of the "nuclear option" term. This time around, Republicans aren't painting the term as a Democrat-created smear. They're using it to describe a completely different maneuver than the one at issue in 2005.

Remember, the "nuclear option" originally described an effort to change Senate rules to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees. Now, as MediaMatters has extensively documented, Fox News and the GOP are using it to describe the Democrats' efforts to work within Senate rules to pass adjustments to the health care reform bill by majority vote. It's all part of the GOP's effort to delegitimize the filibuster-proof reconciliation process—the same majority-vote procedure that Republicans used to pass the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. It's a bogus effort. Reconciliation was used 21 times between 1981 and 2008—16 of those times by Republicans.

And Now, the Parliamentarian

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:13 PM EST

In a display of chutzpah extreme even by modern conservative standards, Sam Stein reports that Republicans have begun a campaign to "cast doubt" on the impartiality of Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin. Why is this so brazen? Because they're the ones who hired him in the first place:

Frumin was elevated to the post by Republican leadership in 2001, in part because he had a reputation for adhering to institutional mores rather than personal ideology. At the time, Majority Leader Trent Lott said he was confident Frumin could do the job, having known him for many years.

....In May 2001, Republican leadership fired Frumin's predecessor, Robert Dove, after he issued a series of rulings that complicated their efforts to pass aspects of the Bush tax cuts and budget proposals through reconciliation. Dove had decided it was inappropriate for money intended for natural disaster relief to be considered through budgetary rules — and he was summarily axed.

Nickel summary: Republicans hired Frumin in 2001 specifically because they thought he might issue friendlier rulings to Republicans. Now they're afraid he's turned on them.

This is like Bush v. Gore all over again: no matter what happens, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process. And, of course, Republicans can do this safe in the knowledge that Beck and Drudge and Rush and Fox will always faithfully adopt their latest meme, no matter how inane, and crank up the outrage machine to fever pitch. Crank it up loud enough and the rest of the media will follow because "it's news." It's a nice little racket as long as you don't mind undermining public faith in virtually every institution of democracy. Which, apparently, they don't.

Congress Should Do Its Job

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:07 PM EST

David has a story today on former Sen. Bob Graham's 2002 efforts to force a review of the CIA's torture and detention program. Here's what Graham says about the responsibilities of the intelligence committee, which he used to run:

There's one thing that distinguishes the intelligence committees from other committees. There are many eyes looking at health care policy, agricultural policy, economic policy—journalists, academics, outside groups. When it comes to intelligence, the committees are virtually the only eyes, ears and noses of the public. When there are suggestions that the US government is engaged in activities that subvert our commitment to human rights, the intelligence committees have every obligation to find out the truth.

Graham also pointed out that letting the CIA "self-regulate" on interrogation issues is madness. "The whole notion of oversight is based on the belief that is not possible or credible for a person or institution to monitor the appropriateness, consequences and efficacy of their activities," he said. Anyway, you should read the whole piece. It's not just broad strokes: Graham specifically criticizes Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), his successor as chair of the Senate intelligence committee, for not pursuing a review of the CIA's interrogation program.

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Sudden Acceleration

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 12:59 PM EST

Here's the latest on the Toyota "sudden acceleration" problem:

Momentum is building for a rule requiring automakers to install brake override systems so drivers can stop their cars during incidents of sudden acceleration, which has been blamed in the deaths of more than 50 people in accidents involving Toyota vehicles nationwide.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Toyota's sudden-acceleration problem Tuesday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said "strong legislative action," including mandates for brake overrides, is needed to protect motorists....The Department of Transportation is also considering a rule to mandate an override system. "We think it is a good safety device, and we're trying to figure out if we should be recommending that," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told members of the committee.

I'd like to see this happen if it's technically feasible. Here's why: Toyota obviously didn't take the reports it received of sudden acceleration problems seriously enough. My sense, though, it that there was probably a reason for that: drivers have been complaining about sudden acceleration in a wide variety of cars for decades, and their complaints almost always turn out to be bogus.1 Most of the time, what happened was that they panicked and actually had their foot on the throttle, not the brake. They're absolutely sure their foot was on the brake, but it wasn't.

This history doesn't defend Toyota's slow response, but it does make it understandable. They probably figured it was just more of the same. That's why the brake override would be a good idea. It's human nature to downplay a problem that you think you already know the answer to, and a brake override would eliminate that. If you got a report of sudden acceleration, you'd have to take it seriously. The old saw about the driver panicking wouldn't hold water. You'd know immediately that there had to be some other problem.

Plus, of course, it would also save lives when people do panic and jam their foot on the accelerator.2 Like everyone, I'll wait for the technical assessment of this, but it sure sounds like a good idea to me. How expensive can a simple mechanical linkage be, after all?

1If I'm off base about this, let me know in comments.

2Sorry, complete brain meltdown there. Obviously a brake override won't have any effect if your foot is on the throttle. Thanks to Omega Centauri in comments.

The Postpartisan Schtick

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 12:27 PM EST

Another Rahm Emanuel profile? How many of these things do we need? But Noam Scheiber's piece in the New Republic does contain this interesting backstory tidbit:

From the very beginning, Emanuel had a clean, elegant theory for how to guide a health care bill through Congress. He’d closely studied each previous failure from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton and concluded that time was their biggest enemy. Because remaking the health care system is such a complex task, it necessarily requires complex legislation. And there hasn’t been a 1,000-page–plus bill in history that didn’t start to stink after several months. It’s just too easy for opponents to cull a few smelly details.

So Emanuel placed a premium on speed. He nagged constantly, setting numerous deadlines....The corollary to this theory was that speed required momentum. If the hundreds of players in Congress and the health care industry believed reform would pass, then they would act so as to make that likely.

....For the first half of last year, this was almost all you needed to know about the administration’s strategy. Then, in July, the White House faced a key decision. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, probably the most important of the five committees considering health care, had spent months negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley, with little to show for it. Emanuel was getting antsy. He gathered his top aides and pressed for a way to hurry the process along. The Senate labor committee had produced its own health care bill. Perhaps, Emanuel wondered, Majority Leader Harry Reid could bypass Baucus and bring it to the floor. Or maybe Baucus could just stop bargaining with Grassley and let Reid move a more partisan version of his bill.

But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September....In fairness, even internal skeptics believed a bipartisan package might be attainable. The problem was that, overlaid on a strategy based on speed and momentum, the extra two months exacted a major cost.

Matt Yglesias says he's happy that Obama mostly pays attention to his policy shop, not his political shop. "The pacing of health care, however, was really just an argument about politics and would have been a smart time to listen to your savvy DC political hand."

True. But I'd tentatively take another conclusion away from this. One of the questions that's been in the front of my mind ever since the 2008 campaign is: Is Obama serious? Does he really believe in all that bipartisan booshwa? If Scheiber is right, this anecdote suggests that he really, really does. It's not just a political ploy, and it's not just a way of gaining public support. He really did think that if he negotiated long enough and treated Republicans with enough respect, a few of them would climb on board.

Now, Scheiber also reports that "even internal skeptics" favored the bipartisan approach. But I don't know if this makes things better or worse. Was the White House really packed full of people so pollyannish that they believed Chuck Grassley and John Kyl and a handful of other Republicans might eventually jump on board a policy that the Republican Party had feverishly opposed for decades? Further, that they might do so in a political environment that was growing more toxic with every passing day, fueled by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the tea partiers? Seriously? What were they smoking over there?

From 3,000 miles away, I know this stuff can seem a lot simpler than it really is. But this really flabbergasts me. It just seems wildly divorced from political reality. What did they see that I didn't?

Barney Frank Will Fight Fed Agency

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 12:03 PM EST

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the influential House financial services committee, says he'll continue to fight for an independent consumer-protection agency as part of this year's comprehensive financial-reform legislation, and that he opposes housing a consumer agency within the Federal Reserve, a plan that recently emerged from the Senate's ongoing negotiations. "My main objection to housing this critical function in the Federal Reserve has been the central bank's historical failure to implement consumer protection as a central part of its mission and role," Frank said in a statement today.

The Massachusetts congressman recently told Mother Jones that an independent consumer-protection agency was a "dealbreaker" for him. He also said an earlier plan leaked out of the Senate—where the banking committee's chair, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is leading the talks—to put a consumer agency within the Treasury Department was "weaker than I was hoping." Frank told Mother Jones recently that he'd rather see Senate Democrats push for a stronger financial-reform bill, and let Senate Republicans try to vote down that bill in public, rather than make early compromises in closed-door meetings.

Here's Frank's statement in full from this morning, which he issued to clarify comments in today's New York Times:

I do not support housing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency in the Federal Reserve. I continue to vigorously support the House-passed bill that establishes an independent agency with strong rule-writing authority and enforcement powers to implement consumer protections. I could, if necessary, support housing this important function in the Treasury Department, provided that the entity has sufficient independence and broad regulatory scope to accomplish the mission of protecting consumers.

My main objection to housing this critical function in the Federal Reserve has been the central bank’s historical failure to implement consumer protection as a central part of its mission and role.

Quote of the Day: Fed or Zoo?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 11:17 AM EST

In today's New York Times, John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, blasts the latest iteration of a consumer-protection agency to emerge from the Senate banking committee's closed-door financial-reform negotiations—namely, a consumer agency housed within the Fed. A vocal critic of the Fed for its failure to police banks under its purview and for its utter lack of regard for protecting consumers, Taylor had this to say when asked where he'd rather see a consumer-protection agency housed:

I'd take the National Zoo over these guys. This is a place to bury it, or at least make it ineffective.