2010 - %3, December

Here Come the Republican AGs

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 8:40 AM PST

The Republican sweep in 2010 went all the way down the ballot, and it's gradually becoming apparent that some of the GOP’s lower-profile victories—particularly at the state level—could also have major consequences. In five states, for instance, Republicans managed to flip the seats for state attorneys general, giving them control of 21 AG slots in the 43 states that elect their state AGs. (The office is appointed in the other states.) Though Democrats still hold a one-seat majority in the states that elect AGs, the midterm elections have given the GOP more AG slots than the party has held for decades. And Republican AGs have already indicated that they’re eager to use their office to become ideological crusaders—particularly as a means of defying Obama and Washington’s Democratic leadership.

As I write in my latest magazine story, Virginia attorney general and tea party hero Ken Cuccinelli has demonstrated exactly how far Republican AGs are willing to go to push their agenda. Cuccinelli was the first AG to file suit against the federal health care law—a legal challenge that now poses the greatest immediate threat to health reform, more so than anything that Congress is currently capable of doing. Cuccinelli has since set  his sights on every other major pillar of the Democratic platform—most recently decreeing that school officials have the authority to seize and search students' cell phones and laptops if they suspect unseemly behavior. He's also continued to use his office as a bully pulpit to slam "Obamacare," claiming last month the federal health law could force Americans to buy gym membership.

Cuccinelli represents a new breed of state AGs who have cut a profile for themselves as high-profile, strident swashbucklers. As I explain, it's a role that their Democratic counterparts had originally pioneered by targeting tobacco companies and other big corporations. Intentionally or not, the crusades of Democratic AGs like Eliot Spitzer ended up politicizing the office, turning it into even more of a political stepping stone and putting Republicans on the defensive. Now that Republican AGs have gained more of the upper hand, it's not surprising that they're eager to wage their own war.

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Tax Cuts for CEOs: Good for Business or Just for the US Chamber?

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 6:21 AM PST

If the US Chamber of Commerce was the kind of nuts-and-bolts business association that its name suggests, it would stay out of the debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. After all, the personal income tax doesn't directly affect the companies that the Chamber claims as members. And if stimulating the overall economy was the Chamber's goal, then a smarter use of the money would have been to extend unemployment benefits for 800,000 US workers who've lost their jobs. So why has the nation's most powerful business lobby made tax cuts for the über-wealthy a top priority?

Chamber Watch, a union-backed watchdog group, has dug up one possible answer: Self-dealing. The people who control the Chamber's purse strings are the same corporate CEOs who populate the top of the personal income tax bracket. In a report released yesterday, Chamber Watch itemizes some of the biggest tax-cut-extensions that could befall the Chamber's best friends:

  • Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corporation, whose donation of $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led to well-publicized shareholder outrage, would pocket more than $1.3 million.
  • Don Blankenship, a former U.S. Chamber Board member and the CEO of Massey Energy, whose company owned the mine in which twenty-nine miners died in April 2010’s mining disaster, the worst in forty years, would take home more than $700,000.
  • David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell and a member of the National Fiscal Commission, who keynoted an address to the National Chamber Foundation expressing concern about the national debt over the next ten years, would get a tax cut of over $1.2 million.
  • CEOs of big banks on Wall Street, who helped collapse the economy and then used the U.S. Chamber to fight stronger financial regulations, stand to reap between $700,000 and $1.6 million each.
  • The CEOs of the health insurance industry, whose industry saw an overall increase in profits this year even while they slashed benefits and instituted breathtaking premium increases, are looking to personally benefit from another hit on the middle class by taking in between $335,000 and $875,000.
  • U.S. Chamber President and CEO, Thomas Donohue, who has shifted the Chamber's focus from serving mainstream business to serving mainstream business to serving the interests of CEOs who write the biggest checks, will personally gain over $200,000.

Of course, the Chamber's other motive for backing tax breaks for the rich is probably ideological. Maybe a group that sides with the GOP as much as the Chamber does is hardwired not to realize that Reaganomics has proved time and again to be a catastrophic failure. Whatever the reason for the Chamber's trickle-down love, though, very little of it is getting to the 98 percent of Americans who aren't in the top tax bracket.

How Powerful is the Tea Party Anyway?

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 4:02 AM PST

The tea party lost the food fight. Despite opposition from conservative activists, including the professional lobbyists at FreedomWorks, the Senate passed a landmark food safety bill 73 to 25 on Tuesday that would give the federal government broad new powers to police the food system. The vote, a rare display of bipartisanship, virtually assures that President Obama will be able to sign the bill before Americans carve up their Christmas goose.

Not too much should be read into any one political act, but the failure of the tea party to derail the legislation is significant—perhaps a sign that the movement has been given too much credit as a political powerbroker. Tea party activists have been vocal and have focused politicians' attention on fiscal issues like the deficit. And to be sure, the tea partiers helped get out the vote for Republican candidates. But in many cases, they only succeeded in electing candidates who were also heavily backed by corporate interests. More than 60 percent of tea party candidates lost their races. Those who won were people like multimillionaire Ron Johnson, who defeated progressive Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. But Feingold was also heavily targeted by the US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests who hated his stands on everything from mandatory arbitration to campaign finance reform. Outside groups spent at least $5 million to help defeat Feingold, making it tough to attribute Johnson's victory to tea party organizing.

If the food safety vote is any indication, a similar dynamic may be at work regarding the tea party’s legislative agenda. Food safety may simply be an issue that doesn’t get tea party activists frothing the way, say, health care reform or auditing the Fed do. But what’s more likely is that the tea party is no more effective in fighting corporate interests than MoveOn. And the vast majority of the food industry backed this bill. Poisoning customers, as it turns out, is very expensive and especially bad for business. Big Ag and the food processors decided that if they were going to do something about the problem, it would be a lot cheaper to let the taxpayers pay for food inspections rather than foot the tab themselves, and they got behind the bill. Not even Glenn Beck could rally enough tea party opposition to kill it. On the day of the vote, Beck urged his millions of viewers and listeners to oppose the measure. But it passed by a wide margin, with 15 GOP votes, including those of newly sworn-in Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who beat a tea party candidate in the GOP primary.

Just as tea party candidates don't win elections without corporate backing, when the tea party is pressed into battle against big business, it usually loses. That’s what happened with the health care debate. Despite the massive protests—such as the angry showings at packed town hall meetings in the summer of 2009—all the tea party fist-waving failed to stop the bill's passage. True, the Democrats had control of both the House and Senate, but that has never guaranteed progress on health care in the past. The difference this time around was that the Obama administration successfully bought off many of the special health care interests that might have otherwise fought the bill. The drug companies, the powerful American Medical Association, and much of the insurance industry were instead sitting at the table, rather than lobbying to kill the bill outright.

That's not to dismiss the movement entirely, of course. The tea party has some influence, but only under the right and increasingly limited conditions, such as with vulnerable moderate Republicans. As my colleague Suzy Khimm elaborates on today in another post here, Sen. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican from Maine, switched her stance on earmarks this week, voting Tuesday in favor of an earmark moratorium amendment. (The amendment ultimately failed.) In March, Snowe voted against a moratorium. Khimm attributes the change to the tea party’s threat to challenge her in the GOP primary in 2012. And earlier this month, after Glenn Beck erroneously reported that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had voted to advance the food safety bill, tea partiers got fired up enough that Hatch posted a column on Beck’s website emphasizing that he did indeed oppose the bill. (Hatch’s colleague from Utah, Robert Bennett was unexpectedly ousted in the GOP primary this year with help from tea party activists, many of whom see Hatch as their next target.)

But in general, the tea party movement has only been truly successful when its interests align with corporate America's. Whether their agenda is praiseworthy or not, the tea partiers have shown a commitment to working through the democratic process to achieve their goals, successfully mobilizing thousands of people who, up until then, hadn't been very politically engaged. Yet when it comes to real, from-the-ground-up change, even the tea partiers can’t usually pull it off. Perhaps that’s a good thing: Letting a small group of angry people direct policy changes from one year to the next isn’t exactly a formula for a stable democracy. At the same time, however, it means that corporate money really does have a chokehold on the political system, and even the angriest and most organized of grassroots activists aren’t going to do much to change that.

Japan Says "Sayonara" to Kyoto Protocol

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 4:00 AM PST

A ritual at the COP meetings is the naming of the Fossil of the Day, a dubious recognition that the Climate Action Network International bestows upon the country who did the most to gum up negotiations on any given day of the summit. Tuesday's award went to Japan, which has drawn plenty of attention this week for its statement that the country would not accept a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

Why's that matter? Well, short of the irony that Japan is rejecting the continuation of an accord named for one of its own cities, the continuation of the protocol has grown ever more integral to negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol, the world's first climate pact, is set to expire at the end of 2012. The negotiations over the past years have been focused on creating a successor to that accord. But discussions under the Kyoto Protocol have also continued in these meetings, as countries work out how to build upon and continue the pledges they first adopted back in 1997. Now that a new, legally binding agreement is becoming less certain (for now at least), there is increasing attention being paid to whether the parties that signed that accord will start a second commitment period with new promises to cutting planet-warming emissions. That would ensure that there is still a legally binding, global deal in place should world leaders fail to draft a new one.

But Japan is saying no way to an extension of the pact, which omits the biggest historical emitter, the US, because it was never ratified. It also does not include major emerging emitters like China. Doing so would be "meaningless and inappropriate," Japanese vice minister for global environmental affairs Hideki Minamikawa said at a news conference last week. The country has reaffirmed its position this week that it will under no conditions agree to a second commitment period under Kyoto.

Japan's not alone. Russia and Canada have also expressed misgivings about continuing Kyoto, which they supported then but say is outdated at this point. Japan's negotiating team has made it clear in Cancun that they think the focus should be on a new deal that includes everyone, not extending the old one. A new agreement on Kyoto that excludes the US and China "will not lead to a fair and effective global emission reduction," the country's negotiating team has said. And Japan blames the US for stalling the process of forging a new pact, in addition to being the only developed nation not included under Kyoto. "If everyone else relies on US actions, then we cannot go anywhere," Kuni Shimada, a special adviser and the former lead negotiator for the country, told Bloomberg

Japan's reticence could create a significant impasse here. Forty countries are already committed to reductions under Kyoto; the least-developed countries fear that allowing it to expire would mean that there would be no binding commitment pushing countries to fulfill those pledges once it expires. Yet Kyoto only covers 27 percent of all global emissions—which is, of course, the major reason a new pact is necessary.

Japan's environmental organizations expressed concern about the country's position. "Japanese people are proud of the Kyoto Protocol and the role we played in its creation, and we expect our government to be a climate leader," said Mayuko Yanai of Friends of the Earth Japan. "That my government is now trying to destroy this treaty that bears a Japanese name is a disgrace."

Good News, Wiretap Fans!

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Dear Wiretap friends, we've got some great news! As you may recall, last year Wiretap ran out of funding, and we closed our doors indefinitely. Fortunately, this year we found a new home. Thanks to the editors at Mother Jones magazine, some parts of Wiretap will live on at this storied magazine's headquarters in San Francisco.

What exactly does that mean? It means that my colleague Titania Kumeh and I will bring you Wiretap-style coverage of the youth issues you care about: education, immigration, race, environment, culture, and everything in between. We'll take you inside California's public schools for a firsthand look at what's really required to provide quality education for young people regardless of their background. And we'll showcase the local students, teachers, parents, and young activists who handle—with more creativity and grace than usually gets reported—the daily challenges that national education experts love to talk about in dire tones.

We'd love to hear your suggestions for coverage via email, Twitter, and article comments. Also, be sure to follow our Wiretap staff alums! Jamilah King's been on a tear with her witty writing for ColorLines, and Tomas Palermo continues to bring us the most inspired reggae, soul, and dancehall over at ForwardEver.

Thank you for your letters of support and good wishes in the past year. You kept us going more than anything else could.

Editors' Note: For more Wiretap-style coverage, check out our ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where youth issues writer Kristina Rizga is known to students as "Miss K." Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow The Miss K Files on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

Even When It Loses, the Tea Party Can Still Win

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Triumphant after the GOP's midterm victories, tea party activists quickly zeroed in on their next crusade: convincing the party that benefited from their support to adopt a ban on earmarks. Though Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) managed to schedule a vote on a two-year earmark moratorium, the measure fell short Tuesday morning on a 56 to 39 vote. Senate Democrats managed to score a rare bipartisan win by passing a larger food safety bill attached to the earmark ban, despite a hue and cry from the tea party. But though the tea party may have lost this round on Capitol Hill, a few unexpected votes suggested that the grassroots right could still have an outsized impact by extracting concessions from the most politically vulnerable members of Congress.



Though eight Republicans broke from their party to vote against the earmark moratorium, there was at least one surprise when the votes were cast: Sen. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Maine Republican who had voted against the earmark moratorium when it came up in March but voted for the ban this time around.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 1, 2010

Wed Dec. 1, 2010 3:30 AM PST

 

LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – U.S. Army Cpl. Mitchell A. Weaver, a Williamsport, Md., native and a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment’s Task Force Storm, troubleshoots Lal-Mohammad-Trabi’s three-kilowatt generator at Baraki Barak in Logar Province Nov. 18. (Photo by U.S. Army Cpl. Cooper T. Cash, 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Task Force Patriot)