2011 - %3, January

GOP to Tea Party Targets: You're On Your Own

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 5:11 PM EST

When it comes to likely tea party targets in 2012, few may be more vulnerable than Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Despite his staunchly conservative record, Hatch's long history of working across the aisle has irked the right flank of his party; recent polls have shown him trailing behind possible primary contenders. Snowe, meanwhile, is one of the few remaining moderate Republicans left in Congress, and the majority of Maine Republicans have said they want to give her the boot. And the Republican Party has sent both lawmakers a clear message: You're on your own.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)—head of the National Republican Senate Committee—suggested that neither Hatch nor Snowe should count on much if any help from national Republicans during their hotly contested primaries. "My preference, all things being equal, would be to have our incumbents take care of their own needs in the primary stage," Cornyn told reporters as he boarded a subway car inside the Capitol complex. When asked whether Hatch might suffer the same fate as his former GOP colleague Bob Bennett—who was routed during his Utah primary last year—Cornyn simply replied that "the concerns are pretty obvious…and I think [Hatch] is getting prepared." He added that he didn't expect the NRSC to put any money into Hatch's primary bid.

By contrast, the NRSC occasionally waded into contested primaries in 2010, encouraging Carly Fiorina in her bid against tea party favorite Chuck DeVore in the California Senate race. (National Democrats poured resources into protecting incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet during his Colorado primary race.)

Cornyn's comments indicate that the NRSC will be reluctant to risk the mess of an intraparty fight—and the likely wrath of its tea party flank—by wading into primary challenges, even (or perhaps especially) to protect at-risk, long-standing incumbents.

When asked about Snowe's prospects, Cornyn was bullish, brushing aside concerns about her vulnerability. "I think she's going to be in pretty good shape… She's been enormously successful in the past, and I wouldn't expect any difference this time," he said. Cornyn added that Snowe was just endorsed by Maine's new tea party-backed governor, Paul LePage, and that it was too early to read much into unfavorable polling.

At that very moment, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) stepped into Cornyn's subway car. It appeared to be the first time the senators had met since Lieberman announced his decision to bow out in 2012, thus avoiding a bloody challenge from Democrats angered by his willingness to side with Republicans. "You're a free man, Joe!" Cornyn bellowed as Lieberman sat down. He gave the four-term Senator a big smile: "It must be great."

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Gingrich Calls for Abolishing the EPA

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 4:38 PM EST

Newt Gingrich is in Iowa today, visiting the land where politicos go to sow the seeds of presidential ambitions. Speaking at the Renewable Fuels Summit, Gingrich moved from token GOP gripes about regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency to a full-on call for abolishing it entirely.

Via Politico, we learn that Gingrich's proposal is to replace it with the "Environmental Solutions Agency," which "would encourage innovation, incentivize success and emphasize sound science and new technology over bureaucracy, regulation, litigation and restrictions on American energy." The former Speaker of the House also noted that Obama should outline an "all of the above" energy plan in the State of the Union tonight to "truly demonstrate he is serious about governing from the center." In Republican-speak, "all of the above" leans heavily on more oil and gas drilling, which Gingrich has repeatedly touted via the "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" campaign promoted by his 527 group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

Remember, this is the guy who two years ago was sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi talking about how we can all join forces to fight climate change. Bemoaning regulations on greenhouse gas emissions is now par for the course for Republicans with political ambitions. But Gingrich's call to abolish the EPA takes it to a new level. The EPA—created by a Republican president, lest we forget—is also responsible for things like, oh, keeping arsenic out of our drinking water, lead out of paints, and carcinogens out of our air.

This surely won't be the last attack on the EPA as Republican candidates start gearing up for 2012. I'm guessing, though, that most Americans actually like clean water and air, so this could be a bit of an overreach.

The Culture of Wall Street

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 2:53 PM EST

Every once in a while Reihan Salam writes something so weird that I'm not sure what to make of it. Is it simply ridiculous on its face? Or is it actually a penetrating insight that merely strikes me as ridiculous because I haven't given it enough thought? I dunno. But today, I report, you decide. Here is Reihan talking about the fact that lots of rich Danes live in other countries in order to escape Denmark's high tax rates:

My guess is that it is somewhat less common for income-maximizing U.S. born individuals to spend the bulk of their prime-age years working in countries with a lower tax burden. And my guess is that this is beneficial in its own way, e.g., agglomerations of rich people might improve the quality of high-end consumption, driving the creation of novel experiences, enabling artists and other creative professionals to make a living doing highly specialized work (e.g., trapeze artists, experimental fiction writers, etc.).

I often think of the U.S. as creating cultural public goods for the world. Our agglomerations of the rich are a big part of it. London deserves credit as well on this front. None of this is to suggest that we shouldn't have more distribution. My skepticism towards dramatically increasing the amount of redistribution we engage rests on other arguments. But it is something to think about, and, I'd suggest, something we should be proud of.

Seriously? The insane wealth of socially worthless Wall Street zillionaires helps provide a living for trapeze artists and experimental fiction writers? That doesn't even strike me as "high-end consumption," for starters. Do rich people really go to Cirque du Soleil and read Michael Ondaatje? I suspect that better examples would be gold-plated bathroom fixtures and Damien Hirst artworks. Both of which, frankly, the world could do without pretty easily. Especially the Damien Hirst monstrosities.

Maybe this is just class envy talking, but America's wealthy class doesn't strike me as much like the Medicis of old, at least when it comes to support of great art. For the most part, it also doesn't strike me that support of great art requires dense agglomerations of rich people anyway. Those agglomerations probably help support great museums and great opera houses, but that's about it. And in any case, all that great art would still exist somewhere even if MOMA and the Met monopolized less of it.

But maybe I'm wrong! Maybe stratospheric wealth — as opposed to merely titanic wealth — really does improve high culture for everyone. Anyone want to take a crack at making a more detailed defense of this thesis?

Where'd Those Missing Guns Go?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 1:52 PM EST

Since the tragedy in Tucson, gun reform advocates have declared war against the sort of high-capacity clip legally obtained and used by alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner. Less discussed, though, has been the thriving underground gun trade that continues to provide criminals with easy access to the high-powered firearms.

Now, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has dug up some shocking statistics that show just how prevalent and accessible these off-the-books guns actually are. Drawing on research from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that licensed gun dealers "lost" an average of at least 56 firearms a day over the last three years. From 2008 to 2010, at least 62,134 firearms vanished from the inventories of of gun dealers. And those are just the guns the ATF knows went missing. According to Brady:

The 62,134 "missing" guns are likely a vast undercount of the total number of guns that disappeared from gun shops in the last three years. The missing guns are noted at ATF compliance inspections of licensed gun dealers, but ATF has conducted compliance inspections each year at only about one-fifth of the nation’s gun shops. Gun dealers inspected by ATF could not account for 22,770 guns in 2008, 18,323 guns in 2009, and 21,041 in 2010.

Because these unaccounted-for guns have no record of sale, they're highly sought after by criminals, who buy them on the black market from gun traffickers. And corrupt gun dealers often disguise off-the-book sales by claiming that firearms were lost or stolen.

“It’s the height of irresponsibility for gun dealers to allow tens of thousands of firearms to leave their shops without background checks or a record of sale. Congress is also to blame for its refusal to fully fund and staff the ATF and to strengthen our nation’s weak guns,” said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Every gun that leaves a gun shop without a background check is one that fuels the illegal gun market and endangers our communities.”

Actual law enforcement is what's missing here. But Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) has introduced legislation that could help address at least some of the illegal circulation of firearms. Often times, gun dealers who've had their licenses revoked are allowed to transfer their inventory into their "personal collections," then selling those guns without performing any sort of background checks on their customers, or keeping any records on their potential customers. That creates a considerable loophole, Ackerman says, that has led to thousands of guns being purchased by individuals who never had a background check, with some of those same weapons being used in deadly shootings.

Ackerman's bill aims to close this "fire-sale loophole." Its fate—along with that of Carolyn McCarthy's bill seeking to ban high-capacity magazines, like the 30-round clip used by alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner—remains up in the air.

Bonds vs. Bankruptcy

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 1:50 PM EST

Republicans have lately been floating the idea of a new law that would allow states to declare bankruptcy. The benefit, from their point of view, is that union contracts can be forcibly renegotiated in bankruptcy, which would allow states to roll back public sector pension plans and — not coincidentally — deliver a hammer blow to public sector unions. However, House majority leader Eric Cantor recently came out against the idea, and James Pethokoukis smells a rat. He thinks GOP pols are caving in to Wall Street interests:

Let’s try and connect a few dots....In 2010 election cycle, Wall Street campaign contributions shifted to Republicans from Democrats....Wall Street does not like the idea of states being given the power to file for bankruptcy....Overall, banks own some quarter-trillion bucks worth of state and local debt.

....Also, some Wall Street firms make a lot of money off the public pension system and don’t want to get on the wrong political side of the issue. Take the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm....Blackstone’s view on public employee pensions is clear and unambiguous: We believe a pension is a promise. Working men and women should not have to worry about their retirement security after years of service to their communities....Billionaire Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman is a big Republican moneyman...Many Republicans would love to cement their rekindled financial relationship with Wall Street heading into 2012 when they have a good chance of retaking the Senate.

I'd say Pethokoukis has this about right. Corporate and financial interests may hate unions, but they don't hate public sector unions. Why should they? Higher wages for public sector workers don't cause them any grief. Conversely, they do hate the idea that their bonds will ever be paid off at less than 100%, no matter how dire the emergency. They made that crystal clear during the 2008-09 financial crisis, and indeed, their counterparty obligations were paid off at 100% in virtually every case.

Put it all together and you have a pretty united financial/corporate stand against anything that might allow states to default on their obligations. That's a lot more important than a longshot attack on public sector unions they don't care about anyway. This is a bitter pill for Republicans, who'd love to take a shot at one of the Democratic Party's big funding sources, but it's the price you pay when you're a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. You do what they say whether you like it or not. And what they're saying is: don't even think about endangering our money. Capiche?

The Partisan Supreme Court

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 12:42 PM EST

From the LA Times:

Justice Antonin Scalia's appearance at a meeting organized by the House Tea Party caucus and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on Monday provoked new cries from liberals and some academics that conservative justices are shedding the appearance of impartiality. The session, part of what Bachmann calls a series of constitutional seminars, was closed to the media. Lawmakers said Scalia advised them to read the Federalist Papers and to follow the Constitution as it was written.

University of Texas law professor Lucas A. Powe, a historian of the liberal Warren Court, said Scalia's appearance made the court look partisan. "He is taking political partisanship to levels not seen in over half a century," Powe said.

I'm on Scalia's side here, though probably not for reasons he'd appreciate. I think the notion that the Supreme Court is nonpartisan is so laughable that I'm surprised anyone even defends the idea any longer, and as long as it's going to be nakedly partisan, why shouldn't justices engage in partisan pep rallies? Might as well be honest about the whole thing.

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The Voter ID Tap Dance

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 12:30 PM EST

The incidence of actual voter fraud at the polls in America is indistinguishable from zero. Basically, it just doesn't happen. But that hasn't stopped conservative states from eagerly passing voter ID laws anyway, and Texas is in the vanguard. Oddly, though, they've decided there ought to be an exception in the new law they're considering:

In 2009, they were talking about requiring photo ID or two forms of non-photo ID; the 2011 bill does not have that non-photo ID option. It does, however, have an exemption from the photo ID requirement for those who are at least 70 years old at the start of 2012 and who have their voter-registration card when they go to vote.

Hmmm. Why make an exception for old people? The answer, obviously, is that lots of senior citizens don't have driver's licenses, and if they have to go to the trouble of getting a state ID card just to vote, they might decide not to bother. In other words, the photo ID requirement would create an artificial obstacle to voting among a group of perfectly law-abiding citizens.

It's good to see Texas Republicans tacitly admitting that. It's an excellent point, after all. There are other groups this applies to, though: students, poor people, and minorities, for example. But no exemption for them! I wonder why. What could possibly be the difference between senior citizens and these other groups? It's a poser, isn't it?1

1Kay Steiger provides the answer at the link, which is where I stole my snark from in the first place.

POSTSCRIPT: And just for the record, I've long supported a national voter ID card, aka a national identity card. See here and here for more.

A Bipartisan Health Care Compromise?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 12:21 PM EST

If there's one thing that both parties can agree on about health care reform, it's that the 1099 tax reporting provision for businesses has got to go. Democrats and Republicans both concur that requiring businesses to report any health-care expenses greater than $600 to the IRS is needlessly burdensome. Even President Obama has singled out the provision as an onerous regulation that is particularly tough on small businesses. And on Monday, there was the sign of some forward momentum on the issue: both Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) announced their plans to introduce separate 1099 repeal bills.

But despite the overwhelming bipartisan support to repeal 1099, actually devising a feasible legislative solution could still be tough sledding. During the lame-duck session just a few weeks ago, Baucus and Johanns introduced the same respective 1099 repeal provisions, and both failed to gain enough votes to pass, despite the near-unanimity that the measure has to go. The problem? Baucus' proposal wasn't paid for, so it would end up increasing the deficit by some $19 billion. Johanns repeal provision, on the other hand, paid for itself through budget cuts to federal agencies that some Democrats were loath to support.

Baucus previously agreed to work with Johanns to hammer out a compromise, but it's easy to see how legislative gridlock could delay 1099 repeal yet again. Given the GOP's strengthened numbers in the Senate and new House majority, Johanns will likely have more leverage to demand the budget cuts in exchange for 1099 repeal. But despite their call to shred reform, piece by piece, Republicans could also be wary about handing the Democrats a clear bipartisan victory on the issue and ratchet up their demands for budget-slashing even further.

Housing Bubble Still Bursting

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 11:11 AM EST

Federal home-buyer tax credits expired last spring, and a few months later home prices started to sag again. As of November of last year, they're still sagging:

The 20-city index is now about 3 percent above April 2009 levels, "suggesting that a double dip could be confirmed before spring," David Blitzer, the index committee's chairman

....From October to November, prices fell in 19 of the 20 metro areas tracked by the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index, widely considered a gauge of the housing market's health. The only exception was San Diego, where prices were basically unchanged.

My own guess is that house prices still have a ways to fall, but not a long ways. Still, even another 10% over the next year or so would continue to put a big drag on the economy. Prosperity may be somewhere around the block, but it's not quite around the corner yet.

Live Chat: Author Mark Hertsgaard

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Join Grist for a live chat with renowned environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard about his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. (Read an excerpt of the book here.) Find out what he thinks is in store for "Generation Hot," the 2 billion or so people under the age of 25 who are facing life in a climate-changed world. And find out what gives him hope for the future—there's a lot that does! Read a Grist post about the book.

The chat starts today at Jan. 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern (noon Pacific) to ask questions and join in the discussion between Hertsgaard and Grist's Lisa Hymas.

This piece was produced by the Climate Desk collaboration.