2011 - %3, January

Filibuster Reform Officially Dead

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 3:57 PM EST

It's now official: filibuster reform is dead. Ezra Klein explains what we get instead:

There is some good stuff in the agreement Reid and McConnell struck. The Senate will vote on eliminating secret holds, ending the timewaster of having the clerk read legislation out on the Senate floor, and cutting the number of nominees who require Senate confirmation by a third (which would free about 400 positions from the process). Reid and McConnell have also agreed, in principle, to avoid filibustering the motion to debate and to grant the other side more opportunities to amend legislation.

All that is laudable, particularly the effort to lower the number of nominees the Senate needs to confirm. But this process kicked off because Democrats were furious at Republican abuse of the filibuster. It's ended with Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the filibuster is here to stay. And the reason is both simple and depressing: Democrats want to be able to use the filibuster, too. Both parties are more committed to being able to obstruct than they are to being able to govern. This is why people call the Senate dysfunctional.

Full-blown elimination of the filibuster was never in the cards, but it's still pretty disappointing that the whole thing petered out this badly. As always, fear of what the other side could do with majority rule outweighs the prospect of what your own side could do with it. Unfortunately, this gives us a system in which neither party is truly responsible for making government function, and the only compromises available are ones that contain enough bribes to keep both parties happy. This is not how we're going to win the future.

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The Problem With Europe

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 2:12 PM EST

Ryan Avent notes today that the relatively tight monetary stance of the European Central Bank has been nearly ideal for Germany. But that's a problem:

The funny thing here is that the ECB is not Germany's central bank; it's the central bank for the euro area. Growth in Germany has hugely outstripped that of other euro zone economies over the past year, especially those on the debt-addled European periphery. Ireland's nominal GDP growth rate was sharply negative in GDP, which isn't the easiest environment in which to try to pay down debts. A monetary policy that's pretty good for Germany is terrible for most of the euro zone. And if the ECB tightens policy because of rising headline inflation, then it will be contracting while austerity programmes around the continent kick into high gear, again hitting peripheral countries the hardest. It's almost as if the ECB wants to make sure that struggling countries can't meet their debt reduction goals.

....Food and energy issues aside, euro zone inflation overall is unlikely to get out of hand thanks to falling price pressures around the periphery. But in Germany, faster growth is finally turning into some inflation. So what the ECB should do, both in order to facilitate recovery across the entire euro zone and to speed internal euro zone rebalancing, is let German inflation run a bit. But all indications are that the ECB sets policy based on conditions in Germany. And so premature and costly tightening looks likely.

Obvously this is bad for lots of Europeans outside Germany, but just to be selfish for a moment, it's probably also bad for us. It's already the case that growth in the world's developed countries is too sluggish while growth in developing countries is heating up dangerously. This is the "two track" recovery that people talk about, and while some of it is probably inevitable, the last thing we should be doing is making it worse. The euro-area economy, like ours, is big enough that sluggish growth there eventually affects the entire world, including us. Right now, Europe simply has too many growth problems to remain a slave to Weimar-era phobias about inflation creeping above 2%.

Three Questions About Those Middle East Revolts

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 1:51 PM EST

Dan Drezner has three questions about the revolts currently sweeping the Middle East:

1) How much logic will be contorted in an effort to argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the trigger? I'm thinking a lot.

2) Which neoconservative impulse will win out — the embrace of democratic longing, or the fear of Islamic movements taking power?

3) A year from now, will Tunisia actually be a democracy? The "Jasmine Revolution" portion of this story is easy — it's the grubby parts of institution-building and power-sharing that muck things up.

Let's see. On #1, I'd say that calling it pretzel bending will end up being an insult to pretzels. #2 is easy: neocons will embrace the democracy part and take credit for it and denounce the Islamist part and blame Obama for it. On #3, the answer is no.

Any other questions?

An Iowa Lawmaker's Covert Pot Ops

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 1:46 PM EST

In 2009, Iowa State Rep. Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield, told me that he was thinking of fibbing his way into getting a medical marijuana card the next time he visited California. I laughed, but it turns out he wasn't joking. In October, the 71-year-old former state trooper and ardent drug warrior sent a letter to his constituents detailing how he'd visited the notoriously pot-friendly Golden State, falsely told a doctor that he suffered from depression and hemorrhoids, and scored a license to inhale. (Read Josh Harkinson's story on just how easy it is to get a pot card in California.)

Why the covert ops? "In essence, I got my prescription to show how asinine it would be to legalize 'medical marijuana,'" wrote Baudler, who opposes a proposal to pass a medical pot law in his home state. "Some of the states that have legalized 'medical marijuana' are now having trouble 'putting the toothpaste back in the tube.' They are attempting to backpedal, which is proving extremely difficult."

Yet Baudler might have to do some backpedaling of his own. Under California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, anyone who "fraudulently represents a medical condition or fraudulently provides any material misinformation to a physician" can be tossed in jail for up to six months and fined up to $1,000. Baulder's defense: He'll gladly appear in front of an ethics board because the "oriental 'doctor'" who "only spoke broken English" probably isn't a licensed physician. 

The Virtue of Unions

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:58 PM EST

Mike Konczal argues that strong labor unions and full employment are better for the economy than high taxes on rich people to fund "a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism." Matt Yglesias agrees:

I think that’s correct, but that “full employment” is doing almost all the work here even while Konczal’s emotional emphasis seems to be on bargaining power. After all, if you have strong labor unions and a government that doesn’t fight for full employment, then what happens is the unions use their bargaining power to cut insider/outsider deals at the expense of the unemployed. One of the great virtues of American unions in their heyday is that they used their political muscle to push the government to fight for full employment, which was excellent and it’s a political voice we’re desperately missing today. But that’s not to say that the unions themselves are a viable substitute for full employment. A market economy is either going to operate near full employment, or else people will only share in its benefits thanks to handouts. That’s true for any given set of labor market institutions.

Sure, full employment is doing most of the work here. But that's the point of a strong labor movement: it forces the government to fight for full employment. It fights for lots of other stuff too, and that's the whole virtue of organized labor. It's true that they also produce a modest wage premium for their own members, but if that's all they did then I wouldn't care much about them and neither would most other liberals.

Unions have lots of pathologies: they can get entranced by implementing insane work rules, they can get co-opted by other political actors, and they can end up fighting progress on social issues, just to name a few. But they fight for economic egalitarianism, and they're the only institution in history that's ever done that successfully on a sustained basis. That's what makes them so indispensable to liberalism and that's what makes them the sworn enemies of conservatism.

You just can't pull labor and full employment apart. It's not a matter of emphasis. A country without a strong labor movement is almost inevitably one in which economic and political power is overwhelmingly on the side of business interests and rich people, and that means you're not going to have sustained full employment because that's not what business interests and rich people want. It's all about power, baby, power.

Who's Afraid of "Death Panels"?

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:57 PM EST

Having cast a mostly symbolic vote to repeal the entire health care law last week, House Republicans have moved on to the next stage of their anti-reform crusade. In my latest story, I explain how GOPers have begun introducing bills to repeal individual parts of the legislation, going after a new Medicare advisory board that they've accused of rationing care through a Soviet-style bureaucracy. The GOP has also begun trying to undermine reform through Congressional hearings: on Wednesday, House Republicans grilled Obama administration officials about reform, accusing the law of hampering job creation and casting doubt on the savings that Democrats say that it will achieve.

To a large extent, these moves are largely political: with Democrats still controlling the Senate and White House, it's highly unlikely that the major parts of the bill will end up being repealed or seriously undermined. At the same time, the Republican provocations aren't purely symbolic, as some parts of the law are genuinely vulnerable to being undone.

As I explain in my story, bipartisan opposition to the new Medicare advisory board—combined with the revived fear-mongering that it will lead to "death panels"— could lead to its demise during the current Congress. And even the Obama administration has showed itself to be vulnerable to the most pointed political attacks. After the health care bill passed, the White House quietly reinserted a controversial rule that would provide Medicare reimbursements to doctors who provided end-of-life counseling—the catalyst for the original "death panel" attacks.

After The New York Times revealed what the White House had done in December, a conservative uproar about "death panels" came roaring back. Rather than defend the policy, the Obama administration bent to political pressure and killed the rule. The flip-flop suggests that the Republicans may have more power to force the administration to undo other policies that the right has linked to its faulty "death panel" meme than some might have thought.

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Report: Dispersant Chemicals Lingering in the Gulf

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:42 PM EST

For MoJo environmental correspondent Julia Whitty's take on the BP dispersants study, click here.

In the weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP—with the consent of federal regulators—spread 1.8 million gallons of dispersants on the surface of the Gulf and at the wellhead a mile below. Using dispersants in this volume and at this depth was unprecedented, and there wasn't a great understanding of the implications. Now a new report indicates that some of the chemical components of the dispersants might remain in the Gulf for months.

The report, from scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, finds that dispersant components aren't breaking down all that fast, lingering in plumes of undersea oil and gas that researchers have been studying. This should "raise questions about what impact the deep-water residue of oil and dispersant—which some say has its own toxic effects—might have had on environment and marine life in the Gulf," the Institute said in a release this week.

The lead author on the report was chemist Elizabeth B. Kujawinski, and it appeared this week in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology. Researchers found a component of the chemical dispersant, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, up to 200 miles from the wellhead. They were also still finding the chemical two to three months after the injections. This would indicate that the mixture was not biodegrading rapidly, the scientists concluded. The report did not, however, evaluate the toxicity of the lingering components, though it does indicate that there should be more investigation into the effects the chemicals may have on the Gulf.

The EPA acknowledged that BP's use of dispersants was a massive, real-time science experiment, but has said it believed the use was justified and better than the alternative—not using them at all. A later report from the National Oil Spill Commission also endorsed their use while arguing that the agency should have been better prepared to make informed decisions on dispersants. This latest research is certainly evidence that more work needs to be done to understand the full impacts of these chemicals.

How the NRA Blocks Gun Research

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:35 PM EST

How much firepower does the gun lobby have? Consider this: since the mid-90s, the NRA has "all but choked off" money for research on gun violence, according to a story today in the New York Times. "We've been stopped from answering the basic questions," said Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which used to be the leading source of financing for firearms research. Thanks to the gun lobby's obstruction, questions like whether more guns actually make communities safer, whether the ready availability of high-capacity magazines increases the number of gun-related deaths, or whether more rigorous background checks of gun buyers make a difference, remain maddeningly unanswered.

From the Times:

The dearth of money can be traced in large measure to a clash between public health scientists and the N.R.A. in the mid-1990s. At the time, Dr. Rosenberg and others at the C.D.C. were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon, financing studies that found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Alarmed, the N.R.A. and its allies on Capitol Hill fought back. The injury center was guilty of "putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science," said [Chief NRA lobbyist Chris] Cox, who also worked on this issue for the N.R.A. more than a decade ago.

Pro-gun lawmakers failed to shutter the injury center in 1996, but did manage to prevent the CDC from using its injury prevention funds to push for gun control measures. As a result: the CDC has tiptoed around gun safety issues in the years since, keeping meaningful data on gun violence out of the hands of lawmakers who could use it to help pass sensible reform legislation. Until then, the NRA can rest easy and ask: where's your proof?

Palin's Shadowy Researcher Cashes In—Again

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:19 PM EST

The latest financial filings for Sarah Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, are out, and the secretive research shop Daniel Schulman and I investigated in November remains on Palin's payroll. According to new Federal Election Commission filings, SarahPAC paid $4,000 on November 24 to Paideia Limited for "research." But as we uncovered, Paideia is a shell corporation; its address leads to a mail drop in rural Wyoming, and even the lawyer who incorporated the company doesn't know who's behind it.

After digging through both American and British business records, and calling all over the country, we eventually tracked down the man behind Paideia: a Dutch right-wing journalist named Joshua Livestro. His background is hardly common for an American political operation:

The 40-year-old is not your typical hire for an American political operation. He has worked as a columnist for the Benelux version of Reader's Digest and the Dutch newspaper De Telegraf. He's also the founder and editor-in-chief of De Dagelijkse Standaard (or, The Daily Standard), a right-wing political blog that weighs in frequently on Palin. In the 1990s, he worked with England's Conservative Party; he went on to become an assistant to Frits Bolkestein, then a European Commission member for internal market and financial services.

More recently, he's been a combative contributor to the website Conservatives4Palin. There he took on Palin's critics on the left and the right, attacking journalists including Marc Ambinder (then of The Atlantic, now of National Journal), Politico's Ben Smith, and National Review's Jonah Goldberg, among many others.

So why Livestro? It turned out Sarah PAC brought him on to advise Palin on the European debt crisis—a move that struck some, like conservative David Frum, by surprise. "Why is a potential president relying for economic advice on freelance journalists rather than Nobel Prizewinners?" Frum wrote on his blog. "It's almost as if Gov. Palin finds the idea of expertise—not merely incomprehensible—but actively repugnant." But Palin and her team must like Livestro well enough if they're keeping him on the SarahPAC payroll.

All told, Sarah PAC did quite well at the end of 2010. The committee raised $275,000 in the last six weeks of 2010. And in 2010 in general, Sarah PAC drummed up $3.5 million, and the committee still has $1.3 million on hand. With that hefty sum in the bank, Palin's committee stands ready to bolster the Alaskan's presidential bid if—more like, when—she officially announces her presidential run.

Gay Ugandan Activist Murdered

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 12:08 PM EST

One of the complainants against a Ugandan newspaper that published photos of "Top Homos" with the caption "HANG THEM" has been bludgeoned to death in Kampala. 

David Kato, activist for the organization Sexual Minorities Uganda, won a court case to stop the paper Rolling Stone (no relation to the American magazine) from publishing photos and addresses of alleged homosexuals earlier this month, after his face appeared on the front page.  

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, though the "kill" part of Uganda's "kill the gays" bill is dead, Ugandan homosexuals are currently subject to sentences of up to 14 years in prison, and legislation to step that up to life in prison is still expected to go before parliament soon. But that's not enough for some vigilantes, or Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, who has promised to appeal the injunction. Muhame did not want the public to attack those whose pictures he published, the editor explained after the announcement of Kato's murder. No, no, that would be soul-shreddingly awful. On the contrary: "We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality."