2010 - %3, December

Could Gays Spoil the Special Forces?

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 3:34 PM EST

The Washington Times, for decades a Moonie-owned, money-hemorrhaging adventure in right-leaning reporting, has a most fascinating story today: "Special-operations troops think the elite force is facing difficulties by accepting open gays into one of the military's more politically conservative communities." The story's premise is that gays could wreak havoc on the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force pararescuers, and Marine recons. "Of particular interest," the Times' Rowan Scarborough writes, "is how Navy SEALs, the macho sea, air and land commandos who put great emphasis on physical prowess, will accept gays." Um, dude? You just answered your own question.

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The Danger of Driving Earmarks Underground

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 1:00 PM EST

The conservative war on earmarks succeeded this month in obstructing the Democrats' omnibus spending billa $1.1 trillion package full of lawmaker-designated spending on pet projects. But even at the height of their renewed anti-earmark crusade, Republicans have been lobbying for exceptions to their proposed ban: Even tea party hero Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for instance, argued that transportation projects should be exempt. In fact, there are a whole slew of workarounds to an earmark ban that could have some undesireable consequences. My colleague Siddhartha Mahanta flags a New York Times story explaining how legislators can quietly lobby federal agencies to funnel spending to pet projects through letters and phone callspractices cutely known as "lettermarking" and "phonemarking."

The earmark loopholes are reminscent of what's happened in Washington since Democrats imposed greater restrictions on lobbying. Rather than reduce lobbying, the new regulations simply drove a lot of activity underground: Official lobbyists have deregistered in droves, so their meetings with legislators don't have to be subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Instead of meeting with officials at the White House, where their visits must be logged, lobbyists have schmoozed with policymakers over lattes at the coffee shop across the street.

Likewise, the earmarks workarounds are largely invisible, eluding public scrutiny and accountability: as the Times reveals, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) sent a letter lobbying the Department of Education to designate funds for a school back home even as he railed against earmarks and federal stimulus spending. So you have a system in which lobbyists can push for pork-barrel spending, and legislators can work to fulfill such requests—both without having to be scrutinized.

As such loopholes are brought to light, it will be even harder for anti-earmark Republicans to dodge charges of hypocrisy. (Lawmakers like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have already been accused of as much, having lobbied to include some of the very earmarks in the omnibus spending bill he's attacked.) What's more, conservatives have also begun to fear that giving up congressionally designated earmarks will end up ceding too much control over spending decisions to the executive branch. In the end, it's probably just a matter of time before earmarks lose their stigma and the conservative crusade against the practice wanes once again.

*Update: Post has been truncated from original.

How to Earmark in Congress Without Really Trying

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 12:29 PM EST

[Could driving pork-spending further underground actually help expose the hypocrisy of appropriations-happy Republicans? Read MJ reporter Suzy Khimm's take here.]

Let's say you're a freshman lawmaker on his way to Washington with a mandate (allegedly) to shrink the size of government, and you take a hacksaw to federal spending. Trolling for low-hanging fiscal fruit, you've fixed your attention on earmarking, that pesky practice of burying spending appropriations for your constituents in larger bills. A little anti-earmark handwringing should burnish your tea party cred, your top advisers say. And hitching a ride on the DeMint/Coburn anti-earmark train couldn't hurt.

But a knack for securing federal funding for much-needed projects back home can buy a lifetime of support (see the late Murtha, John). Earmark foes, old and new, know they have to commandeer money, but without the appearance of doing so. Their political futures depend on it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to sidestep the formal appropriations process.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 28, 2010

Tue Dec. 28, 2010 6:30 AM EST

Santa Claus, with an assist from one of his "elves," rappels from an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter to greet children of the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons at Kadena, Japan, Dec. 17, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lakisha Croley

Corn on "Hardball": Can the Birthers Ever Be Convinced?

Mon Dec. 27, 2010 7:11 PM EST

David Corn and Clarence Page joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss newly elected Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie's efforts to end the birther controversy, once and for all.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Holiday Reading (Dueling Edition)

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 2:34 PM EST

I've just finished Lee Sandlin's Wicked River, about the Mississippi River's heyday in the 19th century. It's well worth a read if you're into that sort of thing; Sandlin's a lively storyteller, although most of the stories need little more than a nudge to get going anyway. His narrative is rich with pirates, revivalists, hucksters, antebellum paranoia, alligators, and gratuitous violence**. Here's a representative sample:

Johnson records one fight that broke out over the question of whether a celebrated duel in South Carolina had been a sham: "When Mr. Charles Stewart stated that those gentlemen that fought actually fought with bullets, Mr Dahlgren said that they must have fought with paper bullets. Mr Stewart then said that if any man would say that they fought with paper bullets that he is a damned liar and a damned scoundrel and a damned coward." The two men began pummeling each other, Stewart with a walking stick and Dahlgren with an umbrella. They then pulled out pistols and began shooting at each other.

Then their friends joined in with Bowie knives. Sandlin floats the rather preposterous theory that alcohol may have been involved.

**Relevant Twain story: "Journalism in Tennessee," from 1871.

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GOP's Immigration Plan: They're Taking Our Jobs!

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 12:58 PM EST

Despite the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric from some Republicans on the campaign trail, the newly empowered GOP could be walking a tightrope when it actually comes to tackling the issue in the next Congress. The anti-immigration wing of the conservative base will demand that Republicans fulfill their promises to crack down on "birthright citizenship," among other fringe issues. But in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the GOP also risks alienating Latino voters in key swing states if the party leadership adopts the flamethrowing stance of its far-right flank. In the face of such a conundrum, the Republicans' game plan on immigration has begun to take shape: Keep focus on the economy by attacking illegal immigrants for taking away jobs from American citizens.

In an interview with Politico, incoming House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) explained the strategy:

Smith's first two hearings will focus on expanding E-Verify, a voluntary electronic system for checking the immigration status of workers that President Barack Obama supports and scrutinizing the administration's record on worksite enforcement.

"They are what I call 70 percent issues—70 percent or more of the American people support those efforts," Smith said. "I think they are popular across the board, and I think they will be appreciated by all American workers regardless of their ethnicity or background or anything else...The focus is on creating jobs and protecting jobs." 

With unemployment rates still stubbornly high, it's probably the most compelling argument the GOP can make to justify a bigger crackdown on illegal immigration. Immigration researchers have shown that, in the long term, expanding immigration raises a nation's economic productivity and average income. But during a recession, there's research indicating that immigration hurts employment rates and income levels for native-born workers in the short term, according to a widely circulated study by economist Giovanni Peri. Defending the long-term benefits of immigration will be a hard sell when average Americans are still struggling to cope with the recession, with an economic turnaround still no sure thing.

That doesn't mean that Republican solutions will necessarily help American citizens get more jobs or improve the economy. In fact, many businesses have resisted the mandatory use of programs like E-Verify, arguing that such requirements are onerous and costly. In a case that's currently before the Supreme Court, the Chamber of Commerce has challenged a Arizona law that revokes licenses from businesses that refuse to use E-Verify to verify the immigration status of its employees. According to Peri, rather than forcing businesses themselves to crack down on illegal immigrants, the government could help native workers by making its legal immigration system more flexible, adjusting visa levels to fit the needs of the economy. But such nuanced solutions might not get much airtime at a time when political leaders can still capitalize on economic fear and uncertainty.

Haley Barbour's Latest Headache

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 9:17 AM EST

For years, Republican Haley Barbour prowled the halls of Congress as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. His shop, Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers, represented the likes of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, defense contractor Raytheon, and even the "Kurdistan Democratic Party USA," according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Then Barbour won the governor’s seat in hard-hit Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union. But while Barbour's title may have changed, his lavish lobbyist lifestyle apparently has not.

Politico reports on Monday that Barbour, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, has made ample use of his state's 12-seater Cessna airplane—for both official business and, well, not-so-official fundraising jaunts and pleasure trips. According to flight records dating back to 2007 (Barbour was elected into office in 2003), Barbour has used to Cessna to whisk him around the country at a cost of $500,000 to taxpayers over the past three years, jetting to locales like New York, Las Vegas, and Washington. Sometimes the trips are for state business, other times they're for posh fundraisers or football games.

In one example, Barbour flew to Las Vegas in March 2010 (using taxpayer dollars) for what was listed in state records as a "project meeting." But according to news reports, Barbour had an expensive fundraiser to attend as well, where donors to his state political action committee could pay $5,000 to drive a stock car at a local racetrack and hobnob with wealthy casino owner Steve Wynn.

Here's more from Politico:

Also among Barbour's state-paid trips are leisure jaunts, where he is—in his staff's view—acting as a sort of plenipotentiary ambassador from Mississippi. Barbour flew to the Cotton Bowl on the state's dime in 2009, as the Ole Miss Rebels beat the Texas Tech Red Raiders 47-34. He attended the second round of the 2010 SEC basketball tournament, in which Ole Miss and Mississippi State were both playing.

In September 2008, Barbour flew on the state plane from Jackson to Gulfport to attend a Don King-promoted fight and a tribute to himself at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. [Barbour spokesman Dan] Turner e-mailed that the event "was part of a combined tribute to Gov. Barbour/promotional event televised to a national audience to remind the public that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was open for tourism after Hurricane Katrina."

To Mississippi's feeble "good government" groups, Barbour is crossing the line.

"What Barbour is doing is that he's playing the system. He's raising as much money as he can, whenever he can and using the state plane to do," said Lynn Evans, president of the watchdog group Common Cause Mississippi.

In response, a Barbour spokesman said the governor "is an effective marketing tool in a state that really needs it."

The revelations about Barbour's jet-setting couldn't come at worse moment for the popular governor, who also chairs the Republican Governor's Association. A recent cover story in the Weekly Standard caused a firestorm when Barbour, asked about growing up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, responded: "I just don't remember it being that bad." The claim, among several others, elicited cries of racism, and forced Barbour to issue a response to the article rebutting those criticisms and clarifying that the period in question "was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted at that time."

In Ratatat's Dreams

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 7:30 AM EST

The first time I saw Ratatat live, the energy of the music prompted me and my college friends to sing through most of the experience—not an unusual reaction for a concertgoer, except when you take into account that Ratatat's songs have no lyrics. A combination of rhythmic force and the lyrical personality of the central riff made us feel encompassed by a rock or hip-hop ballad—soon the entire room was shaking along to the beat.

The duo, made up of multi-instrumentalist Evan Mast and guitarist Mike Stroud (who's also played with Dashboard Confessional and Ben Kweller), carves songs out of electronica, hip-hop, and heavy-metal grains, though what sets them apart is their ability to provide clear shape and definition to their instrumental melodies. With their LP4 album, relased in June, they dish out more of these imaginative-yet-controlled tracks—"Party With Children" and "Drugs" being the most climactic. I recently emailed Stroud to ask about his favorite music, guilty pleasures, and fantasy venues.

10 Green New Year's Resolutions

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 6:30 AM EST

I asked MoJo staffers, our Facebook friends, and Econundrums readers to submit their green new year's resolutions. Herewith, in no particular order, ten of my favorites:

1. Actually composting the veggies that melt into mush in the bottom of the veggie drawer instead of holding the bag by one corner and putting it in the trash.  There is something about the grossness factor that just makes it hard to scrape them out of the bag...I compost everything else I should! -Emma L.

2. Finally getting my motorcycle license to save gas this summer! -Lucy W.

3. I just discovered that changing the reflectors on my stovetop cuts boiling time in half. Also, i'm pretty proud of the fact that i always flush my dog's poop. -Giovanna P.

4. I'm gonna use the same water bottle for the rest of my life, I've decided. -Julie A.

5. Get even more creative with our composting. We now have 15,000 earthworms, and for 2011 we are getting our own chickens! -Pogo S.

6. When I'm driving somewhere, I'll leave early so I don't speed, saving gas. -Peter M.

7. I'm going to try not to use more than 10 plastic/brown paper grocery bags in the year, which means always carrying a reusable bag. -Khary B.

8. Save money by making some eco-friendly laundry detergent: 1 cup shaved castille soap, 1/2 cup borax, 1/2 cup washing soda. Use 1 teaspoon, and your clothes smell fresh right out of the laundry. It takes 10 minutes to make! -Leslie D.

9. No more poisonous household cleaners. The best cleaning solution I have ever used is a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice, and salt. That works on almost everything. For tough jobs like bathrooms, just sprinkle a little baking soda, then the spray, watch it fizzle, and voila! -Neeraj U.

10. I just follow my mother's Depression-era dictum: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without! -Meg B.

And as for me? My backyard is priority number one. It's been looking downright feral since the end of the summer. Then there's my bike, which isn't doing anyone any good sitting on the back porch. After yardwork and bike fixing, who knows? Chickens?

What are you going to do for the planet in 2011? Share your resolutions in the comments.