2011 - %3, January

Putting a Lid on the Bloviators

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 3:35 PM EST

I'll probably never say this again, but I think I'm actually on Darrell Issa's side here. He decided to do things a little differently at today's TARP hearing:

At the start of the hearing, chairman Rep. Darrell Issa announced the committee members would waive their opening statements and instead would have seven days to place them into the record. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, immediately fought back questioning this deviation in traditional procedure, but Issa held his ground. “I recognize that tradition is we hold the members, the witnesses here for sometimes an hour through opening statements. That is a tradition that I intend to break,” Issa said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be opening statements in the future.”

....Rep. Dennis Kucinich later interrupted and stated, “I’ve been in the Congress for 14 years, and I’ve never — it’s just unprecedented that the ranking member not be permitted to give an opening statement.”

I don't know all the details here. I assume that Issa himself didn't give an opening statement either, and I assume that in the future the rules for statements will be fair to both sides. If not, then Issa's being a dick. But let's face it: long rounds of opening statements are a scourge. They virtually never produce anything of note, and forcing witnesses and everyone else to sit through them is a waste of time. Overall, I expect Issa to run the oversight committee like the partisan attack dog he is, but on this particular issue I salute him.

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Watchdog: Admin Ignored Scientists' Spill Report Recommendations

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 3:21 PM EST

A watchdog group is accusing the Obama administration of putting public relations ahead of scientific integrity in its communications about the Gulf oil spill. Last night, the Project on Government Oversight released emails sent between scientists and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Geological Survey, and the White House. POGO charges that emails show that the White House "may have ignored expert advice from agency officials and pressured scientists to make changes during the development of" an August report on the spill "in order to advance a public relations agenda." POGO released the emails along with a letter to President Obama asking him to address concerns about scientific integrity.

In a separate letter to the White House this week, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) raised concerns that even those emails released don't tell the entire story of the oil budget. His office also requested records of communication on the oil spill budget. He notes in his letter to the president that the response his office received had "unjustifiable redactions," "including entire pages blacked out in the middle of pertinent e-mail conversations." Grijalva also raises concerns about transparency surrounding the oil spill budget.

But there is plenty to comb through in the emails. POGO points to an email in which Mark Miller, a scientist at NOAA, states that his office "received strong pushback" from the White House, which encouraged them to use an exact estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, rather than a range of 3 to 5 million barrels that agency scientists had previously recommended. (POGO does note in its letter, however, that they believe the White House "deserves credit for erring on the side of the larger end of the spectrum of the possible size of the spill.")

But POGO argues that hiding the uncertainty did a disservice to the public:

We are concerned that White House officials may have removed the uncertainty that typically comes with scientific measurements and settled on a more definitive number to make the public feel more comfortable. We feel that the public would be better served by understanding that the government’s handling of the Gulf spill is filled with numerous uncertainties.

In another email exchange the group released, EPA deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe expresses concerns about giving an exact percentage for the amount of oil that was chemically dispersed:

The percentages are very rough and should not be considered accurate. We still do not believe we should in a public document try to distinguish between naturally and chemically dispersed oil in the ocean. These calculations are extremely rough estimates yet when they are put into the press - which we want to happen - they will take on a life of their own. We should combine these two categories.

But Stephen E. Hammond, chief of the emergency operations office in US Geological Survey's National Geospatial Program, brushed aside Perciasepe's concern:

Based on how NOAA is developing a communication product with the [White House], the dispersion types (Natural & Chemical) will not be combined. We appreciate the case for combining them, however the goal is to show chemical dispersion as part of the Federal response to the spill.

The oil budget created some controversy after it was released on August 4, as some administration officials made inaccurate claims, stating that most of the oil was "gone" and that the report had been peer reviewed. There were also complaints that the agency NOAA had not released supporting documents for their initial report. A later, more thorough review of the report largely agreed with its findings, however.

Justin Kenney, NOAA director of communications and external affairs, released a statement to Mother Jones on the emails, indicating that they should be interpreted as demonstrating the "healthy scientific debate" that went on among agencies:

These documents reveal a commitment to share information with the public as soon as we were confident it was accurate, a close coordination among numerous agencies and the White House, and a healthy scientific debate that is the hallmark of good policy making, especially during a national crisis. Contents of these emails show the effort made to communicate real-time scientific information to the American public quickly and clearly. We were clear in our release, the report and at the press briefing how those numbers should be interpreted. In November, we released a peer-reviewed report, developed in collaboration with federal and independent scientists, that provides the technical documentation for the Oil Budget and largely validates the early results released on August 4.

The emails certainly show that there were internal debates among the agencies that may explain the unwillingness at NOAA to provide more detailed accounting of the oil in the Gulf at the time the budget was first released.

UPDATE: An EPA spokesman also responded to a request for comment about the allegation that the White House ignored their input on the report:

EPA was not directly involved in the creation of the oil budget, and many of the issues involved were outside EPA's mandate. EPA officials and scientists were among many who participated in a robust conversation about specific technical and scientific issues. All good scientific discussions involve a robust back and forth among scientists, and that's exactly what happened here.

On the Impossibility of Finessing Third Rails

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 3:15 PM EST

Felix Salmon would like President Obama to go after the mortgage interest tax deduction. Matt Yglesias comments:

The implication here is that what the country needs from the president is some bold straight talk on taxes, and I think that’s just wrong. Look at what happened when the Bush administration kinda sorta went after the mortgage interest tax deduction—wonky bloggers praised him, Democrats slammed him, Republicans ran for the hills, he abandoned the idea, and everyone forgot the whole thing ever happened. If Obama had proposed a revenue-neutral phase out of the tax deduction, you’d just get the same thing in reverse.

The right way for the White House to engage with this issue is (a) vaguely, and then (b) in private.

Actually, I'd say the right way for the White House to engage with this issue is (c) not at all. I mean, I'm all in favor of phasing out the home mortgage deduction, but it's political suicide and everyone knows it. Whether privately or not, no Republican will ever agree to it, and I don't imagine many Democrats would either. It's the fastest way I can think of to derail tax reform completely.

This is too bad, but the world is what the world is. It might be possible to propose replacing the mortgage tax deduction with a tax credit, which would be a bit more progressive, but it's a little hard trying to figure out what the political coalition for that is either. Working quietly on tax reform instead of making it into a huge public issue is a good idea (though possibly no longer feasible in the era of Fox News), but I think wonks should just give up on the idea of ditching the home mortgage deduction and focus instead on stuff that might actually happen.

Bryan Fischer, Basketball Analyst

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 2:00 PM EST

American Family Association issues director Bryan Fischer is what we in the blogging business like to call a "generalist." In just the last year, he's called for the public stoning of a killer whale, labeled grizzly bears an existential threat to America, warned that the Congressional Medal of Honor has been "feminized," and suggested that all Muslims be deported. Take any topic, no matter how remote, and Fischer will manage to find a hidden message of impending doom.

Now, in what amounts to a stay of execution for America's wildlife, Fischer has broken his lengthy silence on the subject of Utah high school girls basketball. Last week, Christian Heritage Academy edged West Ridge (a school for at-risk youth), 108-3, prompting some folks to suggest, somewhat delicately, that a 105-point victory might be a little much. Bryan Fischer is not one of those people, and he has dedicated an entire column to making his case.

As Fischer explained, "If it's a choice between grizzlies and humans, the grizzlies have got to go" running up the score is the Christian thing to do. "[I]t's an insult to an opponent not to give your best effort just because you're sitting on a huge lead. Your opponents deserve the respect of facing the best you have to offer, and it's up to them to rise to the challenge." Christian Heritage, Fischer says, "should be praised not condemned."

So there you go: Bryan Fischer has weighed in. And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming about how anti-discrimination laws turn housing complexes into "hunting grounds" for gay people.

Yet More Healthcare Polling

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 1:41 PM EST

Here's yet another poll showing what people think of healthcare reform. It's from Kaiser:

This is a little different from the last poll we saw, but not a lot. Overall, 47% want to keep or expand the law and 43% want to repeal or narrow the law. Additionally, most people disapprove of defunding the law and most of the individual provisions of the law remain popular except for the individual mandate. No surprises there. But take a look at this:

Items 1, 3, and 4 are all beneficial to seniors, yet seniors are less favorable toward them than younger people. Item 2 is harmful to seniors, but seniors are more favorable toward it than younger people. Only item 5 polls about the way you'd expect it to. The differences aren't huge, and it's questionable whether everyone really understood exactly what all these provisions mean, but it's still a bit of an odd result, isn't it?

The Impractical Impracticalness of Rand Paul

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 1:29 PM EST

Between the Republicans' pledge to return to Bush-era spending levels, Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) retreat from the party's pledge to slash $100 billion, and the never-ending back and forth over cutting earmark and defense spending, the GOP is having a tough time turning its fiscal fever dreams into reality.

Enter The Paul.

Not to be upstaged by the White House and the President's State of the Union address on Tuesday, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.) introduced a massive spending cut bill that slashes $500 billion from the federal budget in—wait for it—one year, reports Politico. Recently, Republicans pledged to roll spending back to 2008 levels, a commitment Paul supports. He sees his cuts as his own, not-so-little contribution to the spending solution.

Agencies, departments, and programs Paul wants to eliminate include:

• the Department of Housing and Urban Development

• Department of Energy

• Most of the Education Department (with the exception of Pell Grants for low income college students)

• The Consumer Product Safety Commission, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the national endowments for the humanities and the arts

• All foreign aid

Paul's budget also cuts funding for the federal court system and Agriculture Department by almost a third, while the FDA would suffer a 62% cut. Meanwhile, homeland security spending would be sliced almost in half.

And on defense spending:

Paul's 12-page bill appears to state its defense cuts as a series of 10 percent reductions from President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request—not yet fully enacted. But as described in accompanying material provided by the senator’s office, the end result would be about a 2.7 percent cut below 2010 levels—far more severe than anything envisioned by House Republicans. Most controversial could be a proposed $16 billion reduction from the overseas contingency funds provided for the military for the current fiscal year.

Paul's communications director, Moira Bagley, told Politico that the senator is willing to extend his time horizon beyond 2011 in hopes of drumming up more support for his cuts. "He sees this as a way to begin the conversation," she said. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll shows that over 60 percent of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare, Social Security and education funding. A majority, though, support spending less on foreign aid.

Paul appears to be entirely earnest about his bill. But it's not clear that a huge package of unrealistic, controversial cuts will help the Republicans seem serious about their spending goals. In other words, if this is the best they can offer, they're in trouble.

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Obama's SOTU: Pentagon Gets Off Easy

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 12:07 PM EST

During his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama talked about the need to slash government spending, and he even referred to Pentagon spending. But Gordon Adams, an expert on military spending, says that Obama is pulling his punches:

When it came to defense, though, Obama deferred to the Pentagon and shied away from any game-changing vision on par with his other ideas.

We saw this deference in quick sequence.  Last year the president promised a three-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending but excluded defense; this year he extended that freeze to five years and again exempted defense. Obama then bowed to the Pentagon, noting that “the Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.”

Deferring to a bureaucratic interest to determine what resources it can and cannot do without is not ‘tackling excessive spending.’  It’s posturing – the image of discipline without the pain of making it real. That shortchanges the taxpayer, neglects the service-member, and undermines the civil-military balance on which our republic is premised.

For the taxpayer, trusting the Pentagon, one of the few cabinet-level agencies unable to meet the standards of financial audit, to set its own budget is a sure path toward the spending waste and excess the president claims to be tackling....

Much work therefore remains to be done. National defense is on the table for debt reduction, as it should be. But the conversation is still immature, the outcome uncertain, and the stakes especially high.

 

Foreclosure Mills Pocketed $50M From Fannie, Freddie

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 9:24 AM EST

In late November, as the Foreclosure-gate scandal spread throughout the country, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) demanded to know how much money Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the wounded quasi-government housing corporations, had paid to multiple sleazy law firms at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. One of the firms Neugebauer had in his crosshairs, the Law Offices of David J. Stern in southeastern Florida, had been the subject of a long Mother Jones investigation in August, which also detailed how Fannie and Freddie gave rise to this unscrupulous and greedy breed of law firms. This week Neugebauer got his response: according to data reviewed by HousingWire, the firms in question received nearly $50 million in legal fees from Fannie and Freddie.

Most of that money, $46 million, came from Freddie Mac, the smaller of the two corporations; Fannie paid the controversial firms $2 million. That's quite a hefty sum for Florida's largest "foreclosure mills," as they're known. But the coziness between Fannie and Freddie and the foreclosure mills doesn't stop there. After all, foreclosure mills wouldn't exist were it not for the creation of the two government corporations. As I wrote in August,

Fannie and Freddie also reshaped the foreclosure industry. Their huge holdings meant they had to deal with thousands of foreclosures annually—even during time when relatively few loans were going bad. In the 1990s, the market expanded into subprime territory to feed the securitization beast, and borrowers began defaulting at higher rates. Hiring lawyers on a case-by-case basis was burdensome, so Fannie and Freddie put together a stable of law firms willing to litigate large bundles of foreclosures quickly and cheaply. They urged these handpicked firms to bring all foreclosure-related services—inspections, eviction notices, sales of repossessed properties, and so forth—in-house. Thus emerged the foreclosure supermarket.

David Stern joined that stable of firms in the 1990s, and was even named Fannie's "Attorney of the Year" in 1998 and 1999. So important were Fannie and Freddie's business to him that he considered them "his babies," according to a former employee.

But as soon as Stern's ship began to sink last year, and the Florida attorney general began investigating his operations, Fannie and Freddie dumped Stern and began using other smaller Florida firms. A number of Wall Street banks cut him out of their foreclosure businesses as well, including Citigroup and Bank of America. Right now, the stock of the publicly traded he helped to start, DJSP Enterprises, a foreclosure processing outfit, is languishing around $.50 and faces delisting from NASDAQ, if it doesn't rebound.

Photo of the Day: Promises Promises

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 7:59 AM EST

A Haitian walks past government plans for reconstruction at ruined Fort National, Port-au-PrinceFrom MoJo photo editor Mark Murrmann: A Haitian walks past pictures of proposed redevelopment plans at ruined Fort National, Port-au-Prince

Waxman Seeks Details on Skeptic's Income

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) may be back in the minority, but that also means he's back to the role of professional gadfly. He kicked off the 112th Congress on Monday with a request to new Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to investigate whether a well-known climate skeptic lied to Congress on his CV.

The skeptic in question is Pat Michaels, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Michaels, unlike many of the kooky climate contrarians that Republicans often dig up to, actually has some bona fides. He has a PhD in ecological climatology and is a senior fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. And unlike some of his fellow skeptics, Michaels will acknowledge that the earth is warming—he just doesn't think it's that big of a deal, nor will he agree that human activity is the major contributing factor.

But Michaels is loathe to admit how much of his income over the years has come from fossil fuel interests, despite evidence that he's taken quite a bit of it. In his letter to Upton on Monday, Waxman raises the question of whether Michaels "may have provided misleading information about the sources of his funding and his ties to industries opposed to regulation of emissions responsible for climate change" when he testified before the committee in February 2009.

In his curriculum vitae (PDF) provided to the committee at that time, under the section "Financial Support (Over $10,000)," Michaels listed $4.2 million in income, attributing just 3 percent of it to industry sources—excluding several major industry sources that have been disclosed in the course of litigation, including New Hope Environmental Services, Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., and the free-market think-tank the Heartland Institute.

Asked about whether he is funded by the oil industry in an appearance on CNN last August, Michaels first responded, "Not largely." He was then asked how much of his funding comes from oil interests, to which he replied, "I don't know, 40 percent." That, as Waxman writes, certainly doesn't match up with the CV he provided last year. (The statement was back in the news last week after a mention in Politico.) Waxman proposes that the committee call Michaels in for a meeting.

This reminds me of an interaction I had with Michaels last November, when he was asked to testify before the House Committee on Science and Technology as part of its final hearing of the 111th Congress. I asked him, again, how much money he's taken from fossil fuel interests. "I don't take any taxpayer money,"  he responded. "It's a conscious decision. The country's $14 trillion in debt and if anybody knows me they know that nobody's going to tell me what to say. End of story."

So I asked again about whether he would respond to the questions that have been raised about his legitimacy based on this funding. "It's very clear that nobody tells me what to do," he said, growing increasingly annoyed. "My answer is it's clear that nobody tells me what to do, so it doesn't matter. It's an irrelevancy. Thank you," he continued, before hurrying off.

I'm guessing that Upton won't be rushing to call Michaels in to clarify on this issue, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind as GOP leadership begins its efforts to undermine climate science in the coming months, as Michaels is one of their favorites.