2010 - %3, June

Fiore Cartoon: Tony Hayward's Glamorous Life

Thu Jun. 24, 2010 3:02 PM EDT

While oil continued to pour onto the shores of Louisiana, Tony Hayward spent the weekend at a yacht race around the Isle of Wight. You can't make this stuff up, so maybe it's time we gave Mr. Hayward his own reality TV show: Lifestyles of the Rich and Fossil Fueled.

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Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

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Markey: Why's BP Still Getting Away With Heavy Dispersant Use?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:56 PM EDT

BP has not been meeting the directive from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to slash dispersant use in the Gulf, as David and I reported Wednesday. On Thursday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed the EPA and the Coast Guard on why the company is being allowed to violate their orders.

Markey points out that BP has not eliminated surface application of the chemicals. While they've cut them, "volumes hover around 10,000 gallons” every day. And on several days, BP has surpassed the 15,000 gallon limit on undersea application at the spill source.

“Million of gallons of chemical dispersant have been added to the Gulf waters, contributing to a toxic stew of chemicals, oil and gas with impacts that are not well understood,” wrote Markey. Markey has also been pressing BP on the issue of undersea plumes of oil, which is likely caused by these dispersants.

Meanwhile, the EPA has not yet concluded its own tests on both Corexit, BP's dispersant of choice, and alternatives. Markey acknowledged that "this type of scientific evaluation takes time to accomplish," but argued that the federal government should at least be pushing BP to meet the goal of reducing the use of Corexit as they finalize those tests.

Dems On Energy Package: Lots of Enthusiasm, Few Actual Details

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

Senate Democrats emerged from today's caucus meeting with little in the way of clarity on what their energy package might look like. But they were determined, however, to use the issue as a bludgeon against Republicans.

Senators described a meeting in which caucus members were united in enthusiasm for passing an energy package, but they also said not many specifics were discussed. John Kerry (D-Mass.) described the meeting as "inspirational." Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said it was "an uprising of rank and file members of the caucus." "A number of senators said this was the best caucus they've ever attended," said Majority Leader Harry Reid. But no one could say exactly what a package would look like on energy, climate, or the oil spill. 

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been critical of leadership for advancing weak bills on this subject, said that specifics on climate provisions "wasn't what was really talked about today." Kerry indicated, however, that there was agreement that the Senate should act on cutting carbon before the EPA begins regulating it next year. Senators still expect to debate the package following the July 4 recess.

"We’re determined to bring a bill to the floor of the Senate that we think is reasonable, makes sense, and that will help Americans be able to grab ahold of the future," Kerry said. As for what that bill will be? "You'll have to see what we come to the floor with," Kerry said.

There was unanimity, though, to "make sure we are united in a message to the public that even if we lose, we carry a message that has meaning," said Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Sanders also echoed the idea that this could be more of a message vote than anything else next month. "If you're strong and you're clear and you win the support of the American people, there are Americans who are Republicans as well, and they are going to put pressure on Republicans as well," said Sanders.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin said it was "too soon" to know what the package would look like. So in short, not a whole lot of updates on the package yet coming out of today's caucus meeting.

Are Happy Meals Really a "Creepy and Predatory Practice?"

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:08 PM EDT

McDonald's Happy Meals toys are in the news again, but not for their cadmium-laced veneers or potentially choke-inducing tiny parts (see a Mother Jones slideshow of recalled toys for more in that vein). No, this week the entire concept of Happy Meals sits in the hot seat. "McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," says Center for Science in the Public Interest litigation director Stephen Gardner. The watchdog group has given McDonald's 30 days to pull toys from the menu—or face a lawsuit for illegal and deceptive food marketing.

But are the millions of burger dollars pumped into kid marketing really why—as Corporate Accountability International put it—"one in three children born today will become diabetic during their lifetime as a result of a McDonald's-style diet?" Argues Slate writer Rachael Larimore:

If you're going to punish McDonald's for catering to kids, are you also going to restrict how much programming the networks can air targeted to children? Are you going to tell Nintendo that they can release only so many games rated "E for everyone"?...it's not fair to blame one company or one industry for a disease that has a multitude of causes. That just lets the parents off the hook.

The concern over the seductive qualities of Happy Meals could mean the end to a childhood tradition of getting a fun surprise along with those chicken McNuggets. But at the rate the meals are now being consumed worldwide, maybe it's a tradition that has gotten a little out of hand.

Our Job-Killing Senate

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 1:40 PM EDT

Senate Republicans—with the help of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—are poised to kill an economic benefits package today, delivering what could be a serious blow to the country’s recovery, as Matt Yglesias points out. Known as the "tax-extenders" bill, the legislation would continue unemployment benefits, support certain tax breaks, provide a boost to Medicare payments for doctors, and extend Medicaid funding to collapsing state budgets. Conservatives have raised a predictable hue and cry about increasing the deficit. Democrats, desperate to have the legislation pass, have scaled back the bill over the past weeks "from $190 billion, to $80 billion, to $55 billion, to just over $30 billion," Arthur Delaney reports. But it hasn’t been enough to swing key moderate votes, and the legislation looks like it will fail, 42-58, this afternoon.

What’s the price of this political obstructionism? In addition to the millions of Americans who stand to lose unemployment benefits, a huge number of private and public sector employees will lose their jobs due to state budget cuts. Without federal help, states will have to pour in more money to prop up Medicaid, forcing them to make cutbacks in other parts of the budget. As a result, Moody's chief economist estimates that 200,000 jobs could be axed without federal Medicaid support, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts the number as high as 900,000—jobs belonging to teachers, firemen, police, and social workers, among others.

While federal and state governments both contribute to Medicaid funding, the economic crisis has left the states in a terrible budget crunch. The federal government has tried to step in, devoting over 60 percent of the federal stimulus money to propping up Medicaid so states wouldn’t have to make other cuts. But that money is now set to expire, and the states have yet to recover from the effects of the recession to make up the difference.

On top of unemployment benefit cuts and job losses, the cuts to social services could be brutal. The WonkRoom explains:

Thompson pointed to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report stating that “without the extended Medicaid funding, Pennsylvania plans to cut funding for domestic violence prevention in half, eliminate all state funds for addressing substance abuse and homelessness, cut funding for child welfare by one-quarter, and cut payments to private hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors across the state — among other steps.”…

Arizona would have to cut funding for its state court system, Colorado’s likely cuts “include eliminating state aid for full-day kindergarten for 35,000 children, eliminating preschool aid for 21,000 children, and increasing overcrowding in juvenile detention facilities,” while New Mexico “could eliminate a wide range of Medicaid services, including emergency hospital services, inpatient psychiatric care, personal care assistance for the disabled, prescribed medications, and hospice care.”

Buried in the mess is a larger argument for federalizing Medicaid, which would free up state budgets and prevent these kinds of excruciating budget cuts every time state governments hit a rough economic patch. (Kevin brought up this point just last week.) But this is the system that we’re stuck with for now. The federal government needs to support it, and it’s unfortunate that our deadlocked Senate is about to deliver a painful setback to our economic recovery.

Update: As predicted, the tax extenders bill has failed in the Senate. Sigh.

G20 Looks to Weaken Fossil Fuel Subsidy Agreement

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

At a largely disappointing G20 summit last September, one of the few bright spots was the agreement that member nations would phase out fossil fuel subsidies. But as G20 prepares to meet this week in Toronto, it looks like that commitment will be substantially watered down.

Leaked draft language (PDF) obtained by ClimateWire indicates that leaders may weaken the language on fossil fuels, suggesting that commitments will be "voluntary" and "member specific":

We reviewed progress made to date in identifying inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and we agree to continue working to develop voluntary, member-specific approaches for the rationalization and phase out of such measures.

"This is quite worrisome," said Steve Kretzman, head of Oil Change International, a group advocating for the subsidy cuts. "This amounts to saying they may phase out fossil fuel subsidies if they feel like it."

It's not yet known which G20 member(s) are responsible for the less-ambitious language. It might not be the US this time, despite America's reputation when it comes to international agreements. Obama's 2011 budget called for the elimination of 12 tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies, which is expected to raise $39 billion in the next 10 years. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and several other senators have drafted a bill that would follow through on that, which looks likely to be included in the Senate's energy, oil spill, and (possibly) climate legislation next month.

The G20 meeting starts Sunday in Toronto.

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Just How Unpopular Is BP?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

According to a new NBC News/Journal poll, BP is one of the biggest villains that the organization has ever surveyed:

[O]nly 6 percent have a favorable rating of BP. In the history of the NBC News/Journal poll, Saddam Hussein (3 percent), Fidel Castro (3 percent) and Yasser Arafat (4 percent) have had lower favorable scores, and O.J. Simpson (11 percent) and tobacco-maker Philip Morris (15 percent) have had higher ratings.

BP execs do have a bit of breathing room: Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street greed, still ranks even lower than the oil company in the Least Popular Corporate Brands contest, as my colleague Andy points out

That being said, the spill has pulled down Obama's popularity as well, with his approval rating dropping five points to 45 percent--the first time it's gone below 50 percent since the NBC News/Journal began polling. But the public still believes the president doing a better job than BP or Congress in terms of handling the spill, and Obama's personal popularity remains high. While such trends are unlikely to help endangered Democratic members of Congress in 2010, they don't yet spell doom for the future of Obama's presidency.

Leveling the Campaign Finance Playing Field

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

A campaign finance reform bill meant to curb the excesses of the Citizens United decision is scheduled for a vote in the House today. The Supreme Court ruling lifted spending restrictions for unions and corporations, allowing them to spend freely on campaign ads that explicitly advocated for or against candidates. The DISCLOSE Act is intended to help level the playing field by requiring all groups to reveal the donors behind such ads, preventing corporations from hiding behind third parties—as they’ve often done in the past—to avoid having to reveal their identities.

The argument is that such measures could have a cooling effect on unfettered corporate spending on elections, as companies might be reluctant to risk tainting their brands by supporting or opposing a candidate. I suspect that this might be true: in the months since the Citizens United decision, there have been very few reports of corporations taking advantage of the ruling by directly funding campaign ads themselves.

But the bill set off a firestorm last week after the National Rifle Association scored a big carveout for itself that would exempt it from the legislation's disclosure rules—most importantly, it wouldn’t have to reveal its closely held list of donors. This bout of political horsetrading caused both conservative and liberal advocates to cry foul, and the measure's chances of passage—in either the House or the Senate—are now uncertain. 

David Broder suggests an alternative reform proposal today (found via Ezra’s Wonkbook) that would forgo disclosure requirements in favor of empowering small donors, citing an idea promoted by Michael Malbin, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute:

Malbin's model is the New York City system, with a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of any contribution, making it worth $1,225 to the candidate.

With that kind of payoff, he says, candidates would have every reason to go after small contributors—and pay less attention to the fat cats. And with a flood of such "clean" money, the dollars that corporations and unions decide to spend in the game would become relatively less important.

It’s an interesting idea—and could certainly be an incentive for candidates to seek out small donors, even if they don’t have that same Obama magic. But while it does make small donors more competitive, it wouldn’t eliminate the need for the disclosure requirements in the current bill. And New York City itself is a good example of why.

NYC’s campaign finance rules certainly haven’t deterred Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the eighth richest person in the US, from forgoing public financing so he could dip into his billions without restriction to back his campaigns. But at least the public is quite aware that his own corporate fortune has backed his bid—and Bloomberg's rightfully had to weather the criticism that comes along with it. Similarly, if corporations want to underwrite federal campaign expenditures, they should at least be required to do so in public view. As it stands, we have no way of knowing whether Citizens United has yet unleashed a wave of corporate election spending, as deep-pocketed groups are still allowed to hide behind third parties who can do their bidding.

BP Oil Spill: Israel's Revenge?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 9:54 AM EDT

The ever-entertaining WorldNetDaily has a breaking exclusive this morning suggesting that President Obama may have caused the BP oil spill by dissing Israel. Quoting the Biblical prophecies of Carl Gallups, a talk-radio host and Baptist pastor in Florida, WND reports:

April the 19th, Israel celebrates its independence in 2010," Gallups says in narration on the video. "On April the 19th, Fox News reports that the U.S. will no longer automatically support Israel in the United Nations. The next day, on April the 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes. Coincidence? Or the hand and judgment of God?"

WND notes seriously that Gallups isn't the only expert who thinks that America might be "under a curse from God." Referring to the Gulf spill (which Gallups claims could eventually reach all the way to Europe), the 80-year-old "Biblical expert" and Christian Zionist Hal Lindsey tells WND, "I believe this is evidence that when you turn your back on Israel, especially when you've been a supporter, you're gonna see judgments come from God."

Gallups and Lindsey are clearly not the first to suggest that the oil spill was indirectly caused by the Obama administration rather than say, oil company incompetence. The environmental disaster has spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories. Rush Limbaugh famously blamed environmentalists for causing the spill as part of their campaign to end deepwater oil drilling. There are rumblings that BP blew up the well itself. No doubt some religious homophobes have found a way to blame gays for the oil spill. And of course, all of this was predicted in Revelations, a section of the Bible Gallups seems to have overlooked in his focus on Genesis and its support for Israel.

But it's always interesting to hear this kind of stuff coming from WND. The conservative news site does tend to run lots of stories like "European Antichrist Looking More and More Unlikely" alongside its attempts to prove that Obama is not an American citizen. But unlike Limbaugh or the other BP conspiracy theorists out there, WND actually claims to be a legitimate news outlet and the largest English-language Internet news site in the world. It even has a White House correspondent.  

In any event, those interested in seeing the oil spill prediction map that has oil washing up on the beaches of France along with a tutorial on the Jewish calendar can watch the Gallups video here. If nothing else, it's good for a giggle:

 

Goldman Sachs Still Eviler Than BP

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 9:06 AM EDT

Felix Salmon points to a graph today mapping out the public's impression of three of the most wounded, scandal-ridden companies: Toyota, BP, and Goldman Sachs. As it turns out, in reaction to the question "If you've heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, was it positive or negative?" the Biggest Loser award belongs to...Goldman Sachs. Despite BP's ongoing, ever worsening catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, Goldman, under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the face (fairly or not) of Wall Street greed and recklessness, still has the worst public image among the three companies. Here's the graph, via Felix: