2011 - %3, January

Pelosi's Defectors

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 3:37 PM EST

On their first day in the minority, Democrats were anything but united: 19 members defected and refused to vote for Nancy Pelosi as their party's leader in the House. Most of the dissident Dems voted for Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), the Blue Dog who launched a longshot bid to challenge the former Speaker. He managed to convince 10 other conservative Democrats to support him. A handful of other members cast votes this way and that: Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Rep. Dan Cardoza (D-Calif.) voted for each other, and one member cast a ballot for Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Pelosi's right hand man. One surprising defection came from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a rising star in the party who voted for many of the biggest Democratic bills but who faced a steep challenge during her re-election race.

Pelosi still prevailed with 173 votes, but the defections sent her a message that not everyone is on board with her hard-charging, liberal style. "When you lose in such a devasting way...you need to step aside and let someone else take the reins," Shuler said in an interview shortly before the vote on Wednesday.

While the liberal contingent of the House Democrats has already raised a ruckus—protesting vehemently during the tax-cut compromise—the party's diminished Blue Dog Caucus has warned the party against resorting to GOP-style partisan obstructionism. "My hope is that everyone received the message that was sent to members on both sides of Congress that we've got to start working together," said Shuler. "Don't play political games—that disrupts progress to the country—let's try to work with our colleagues across the aisle...just because one side does it doesn't make it always appropriate for the rest."

Though conservative Democrats were one of the biggest casualties of the midterms, Blue Dogs like Shuler could end up being empowered in the next Congress if President Obama decides to tack toward the center to sway independent voters, much as he did during the tax-cut compromise.

That being said, even Shuler—who voted against health care reform—came to the defense of the Democrats' biggest legislative accomplishments. Shuler vowed to oppose repeal of health reform, listing some of the major benefits of the law and insisting that incremental tweaks would fix the rest. "I actually think it would be immoral to take that away from the children with pre-exsiting conditions right now. From a moral standpoint, I cannot see voting to repeal on that," Shuler said. In the face of the oncoming GOP assault, the Democratic Party will need to overcome its internal divisions and muster all the moderate support that it can get.

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A Few Words About the Republican Party

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:45 PM EST

Just a quick note for the DC press corps: Republicans don't care about the deficit. They care about cutting taxes on the rich and shifting spending from the poor to more deserving corporate recipients. Understanding this will collectively save you thousands of hours of time writing chin-scratching op-eds and analysis pieces that try to explain why Republicans are doing what they're doing.

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to contact me.

Flashback: Speaker Boehner on Climate and Cow Farts

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:16 PM EST

As John Boehner assumes the position of Speaker of the House today, let's take a minute to recall what the person now third in line for the presidency thinks about climate change. Joe Romm hightlighted Boehner's April 2009 interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos earlier. Here's the video, with the transcript posted below:

Key portion of the transcript:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you then about energy. We showed your statement on the president's decision through the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Also, you've come out against the president's proposal to cap-and-trade carbon emissions. So what is the Republican answer to climate change? Is it a problem? Do you have a plan to address it?

BOEHNER: George, we believe that our -- all of the above energy strategy from last year continues to be the right approach on energy. That we ought to make sure that we have new sources of energy, green energy, but we need nuclear energy, we need other types of alternatives, and, yes, we need American-made oil and gas.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that doesn't do anything when it comes to emissions, sir.

BOEHNER: When it comes to the issue of climate change, George, it's pretty clear that if we don't work with other industrialized nations around the world, what's going to happen is that we're going to ship millions of American jobs overseas. We have to deal with this in a responsible way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what is the responsible way? That's my question. What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?

BOEHNER: George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide.

Building a Low-Carbon Infrastructure

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:11 PM EST

Although Ezra Klein likes the idea behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it's not for him:

But the Nissan Leaf wouldn't work for me at all, as I don't own a garage, and D.C's streets aren't outfitted with charging stations. Which gets to the difficulty these new technologies will have: We've sunk an enormous amount of money into the infrastructure that makes cars that run on refined oil products convenient to use as our primary modes of transportation.

....This is why pricing carbon always made sense: There's so much money and habit and infrastructure and culture working on behalf of the energy status quo right now, while the alternatives don't even get to see their advantages — low carbon emissions — reflected in their price.

I agree with all of this. Still, there's a disconnect here. On narrow grounds, the Leaf very much has its carbon footprint reflected in its price because it qualifies for a $7,000 federal subsidy. That's far more of a relative pricing advantage than it would get from any plausible carbon tax, which would probably add no more than 50 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline. On broader grounds, keep in mind that no car is designed to appeal to everyone. If Nissan sells a million copies of the Leaf they'll be ecstatic — and there are way more than a million people in America who do have garages and drive less than 100 miles per day. Once they start buying Leafs (Leaves?) and Chevy Volts and other electric cars, charging stations will start to appear the same way that gas stations slowly started to appear in the 1910s. That will increase the market for electric cars, which in turn will increase the demand for charging stations, rinse and repeat. Five years from now, maybe the Washington Post's parking garage will have charging stations available and Ezra will be able to buy a Leaf and charge it every day at work.

There's no question that carbon pricing would help all this along, but it's best to think of it as more of a tailwind than anything else. Electric cars will succeed or fail mostly based on other things, and they can succeed even without a carbon tax. But they — along with lots of other light carbon footprint technologies — would suceed a little bit faster if we had one.

Sexual Harassment and Other Occupational Hazards

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:00 PM EST

In my article about Haiti in the current issue, I mention how I was sexually threatened by a man whose job was to drive me around. Though that was the worst/most egregious instance, it wasn't the first time something like that happened in my five months on assignment last year, nor was it the last time on that trip to Haiti. Two nights before I left, an argument outside my hotel about my refusal to sleep with another man who was in my employ turned ugly enough that I ultimately begged protection from a passing patron carrying a gun. And as Judith Matloff explains in this excellent 2007 article from the Columbia Journalism Review, this kind of stuff happens to lady-reporters all the time.

Which is obviously horrible. But additionally horrible, and less obvious, is that however common it is for correspondents to be sexually harassed, threatened, or assaulted, it's hardly ever talked about. Reporters themselves often fail to bring it up: You don't want to make it sound like you can't handle your assignment, or, worse, your job in general, especially given the difficulty of avoiding perpetrators, who are often men you are paying to assist or protect you and the only people you know in a foreign country—translators, drivers, guards.

And the journalism institution isn't helping to facilitate the dialogue. There are, as Matloff points out, some unforgivable industry oversights, like "no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists."

Read the article.

Symbolism on Capitol Hill

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 11:59 AM EST

Paul Kane of the Washington Post on Republican plans for the 112th Congress:

Almost as soon as they take control of the House at noon Wednesday, Republicans will embark on a 20-day plan aimed at undoing major aspects of President Obama's agenda as they seek to take advantage of the weeks before the Senate's return and the president's State of the Union address.

....Much of what Republicans do will be symbolic, given that Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But the quick action will allow Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming speaker, and House Republicans to follow through on campaign pledges and to try to establish their party as a bulwark against what they see as an out-of-control government.

That sure brings back memories, doesn't it? It's almost precisely what Newt Gingrich did in 1994: win election based on a bold-sounding Contract With America, ram it all through on quick party-line votes in the House as soon as the 104th Congress convened, and then let the whole thing die. But he followed through on his campaign pledges!

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Wall Street's Gift to GOP: '10 Elections

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 10:31 AM EST

In recent years, Democrats were the party of choice for Wall Street's deep-pocketed masters of the universe. In March 2008, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that Democratic presidential candidates were the "darlings of Wall St." The finance, insurance, and real estate, or FIRE, sector gave $10 million more to Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 than their GOP counterparts. And in 2009, 98 percent of donations from the top ten hedge fund managers went to Democrats. 

But, as Peter Stone and Michael Isikoff report on Wednesday, the love is gone between Wall Street's high fliers and the Democratic Party. The title says it all: "How Wall Street Execs. Bankrolled GOP Victory." According to campaign finance data, a clutch of wealthy hedge funds injected $10 million into Republican campaign committees in the run-up to the midterm elections in November. Not only did hedge funders write some big checks, Stone and Isikoff found, they also "held multiple fundraisers and coordinated strategy to direct what appear to be unprecedented sums into the coffers of GOP and allied political committees."

The animus between Barack Obama's party and Wall Street isn't hard to grasp. There's been no shortage of public anger at Wall Street over issues like undercutting financial reform, six- and-seven figure bonuses during the recession, and the taxpayer-funded bailouts of the nation's largest banks. At times Obama has fed into that outrage, railing against "fat cat bankers" and renegade "speculators" on Wall Street. That anger helped propel a financial regulatory reform bill through Congress last summer, a bill that nearly all of Wall Street opposed. That bill, which the GOP also fought again, is largely the reason the Democrats' ties to big finance have frayed in the past year.

To illustrate just how much influence Wall Street can have on an election, Stone and Isikoff point to the reelection of Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ):

As it became increasingly clear late last summer that Republicans were likely to capture the House, the partners at Elliott Management Corp., a $17 billion Wall Street hedge fund that specializes in distressed foreign debt, mobilized to boost Garrett's political fortunes. One of the firm's senior officers threw a fundraiser for Garrett. The firm's executives and one of their spouses wrote checks totaling $195,800 to two of the congressman's political fundraising committees, campaign records show.

Of that amount, $45,000 was donated by nine Elliott executives to the congressman’s leadership political action committee Supporting Conservatives of Today and Tomorrow. As first reported by the The Record newspaper, another $150,800 was donated to a newly created entity called the Scott Garrett Victory Committee, which was registered by a GOP fundraiser using a post office box in Athens, Ga...

Elliott executives—one of whom wrote a check for $35,000—ended up providing about 96 percent of all the funds raised by the Garrett committee, according to the review of campaign records by CPI and NBC.

Garrett coasted to victory on November 2, trouncing his opponent by a two-to-one margin.

There's plenty more in Stone and Isikoff's investigation, including a breakdown of all the big hedge fund managers who made sure the GOP crushed the Democrats in the midterms. If you want to truly understand how the GOP won the most House seats in an election since World War II, then you need to read this story.

Of course, with a wave of new Republicans starting their new jobs on Wednesday, Wall Street's donor will be expecting them to return the generosity. Number one on the list: Repealing the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. 

Issa's Glaring Omission: War Spending

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 8:58 AM EST

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the powerful House oversight committee, has vowed to sniff out the "waste, fraud, and abuse" in the federal government, even if it means holding seven committee hearings a week. On CBS' "Face the Nation," Issa pledged to identify as much as $200 billion in wasteful spending at the federal level, and an early target list for Congress' top watchdog includes WikiLeaks, housing giant Fannie Mae, and Food and Drug Administration recalls. However, a top Democrat on the oversight committee, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio.), is calling out Issa on a glaring omission in the chairman's attack plan: the US's bloated defense budget.

In a letter sent Tuesday, Kucinich challenged Issa on why he hadn't pledged to rid the Department of Defense's $663 billion budget of wasteful spending. Kucinich cited a 2001 Government Accountability Office report, mentioned by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that found US officials had lost track of $2.3 trillion of DOD spending. Kucinich goes on:

"We have seen dozens of reports of corruption, lost money, and unaccountable transactions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have seen report of billions of taxpayers dollars in shrink-wrapped packages sent to Iraq for unsupervised distribution. We have seen millions of dollars flow into Afghanistan, and we have seen millions of dollars flow out again into the hands of the family of President Hamid Karzai for purposes such as building luxury villas in Dubai."  

He concludes, "To meet your stated purpose of protecting American taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse, it is essential that you examine the Department of Defense and money wasted during unnecessary wars."

The Oil Industry's New Year's Resolution

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The American Petroleum Institute, which last year called congressional efforts to curb climate changing emissions, among other things, "a giant tax," a "job killer," and "fundamentally flawed," is now begging for Congress to take action—to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating those emissions, that is. In a speech laying out the priorities of the oil industry's top trade for the new year on Tuesday, API president Jack Gerard pledged to fight the coming EPA regulations.

EPA regulations of greenhouse gases began phasing in on Sunday, though their progression will be slow and the major rules for power plants and oil refineries aren't even expected until the second half of 2012. The EPA rules came after a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that the agency could in fact regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act if it determines that the gases endanger human health, and after both the Bush and Obama administration EPA did in fact reach that conclusion in 2008 and 2009, respectively. While a new law from Congress dealing with greenhouse gases was the preference of most folks following the issue (enviros, business, and the administration included), the Senate decided not to deal with it last year. And now the EPA is following through with actions as the agency is compelled to by the Supreme Court, the Clean Air Act, and its executive branch authority.

But API—as well as some House members and senators on both sides of the aisle—wants the agency's regulations shut down. "We do not support and strongly oppose the EPA unilaterally regulating greenhouse gas emissions," said Gerard. "We believe it is in the purview of the United States Congress to regulate greenhouse gases." The EPA, he said, "has overstepped its bounds." He also said API "will support the means necessary to make sure Congress makes that decision," noting there are multiple options available to do so but not offering any preference for how legislators could do that.

To sum up: The EPA was directed to act on this issue, which it has. Congress had almost four years after the Supreme Court decision to put in place a new law that woud supersede EPA regulations. But industry groups like API balked at the options that Congress came up with, and in the end, the Senate never passed anything at all—which has basically forced the EPA to act. Now industry groups are griping that Congress should act, not EPA.

One option for blocking the EPA, which incoming Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) floated this week, is to pass a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. This obscure maneuver allows Congress to block a regulation from the executive branch within 60 days of publication in the Federal Register. Upton was in the audience for Tuesday's API event, and it's pretty much assured that if Upton does pursue that option, API will support him.

On the broader issue of climate change—you know, the issue those regulations were designed to address in the first place and the issue that Gerard says he prefers that Congress deal with—Gerard predicted that "the climate discussion will likely be put off for another day." While he noted that "there may be a time in the future when we come back to the climate dialogue," he didn't seem to think that would be anytime soon. "I think it's a question of priority," said Gerard. "Right now I think the American people have made it clear they want the focus to be on job creation."

Gerard's other priorities for the year included urging the Obama administration to reconsider its decision to delay lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and reverse the decision to open new areas to drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, which was made in respons to the Gulf oil spill. Gerard also called for "additional access" to oil and gas reserves on land and in the Outer Continental Shelf, and decried any move that would amount to "increasing taxes on oil and natural gas." (While Gerard refers to attempts to "raise taxes," what API usually means by that is efforts to end subsidies and close the loopholes the industry currently enjoys—which the Obama administration has proposed cutting in past budgets.) Doing so, said Gerard, would "result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs."

There wasn't much new really in Tuesday's speech, but a good idea of what to expect from the oil industry in 2011.

Comic: The Climate Bill in Six Acts

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The last two years saw the protracted death of climate change legislation. Here, in an exclusive new comic, we tell the sordid tale. Click on the thumbnails below to see each page of the comic.

1. 2008: A New Hope 2. Spring 2009: The House Gets to Work 3. Summer 2009: Dawn of the Dead
4. Winter '09 - Spring '10: Senate Follies  5. 2010: Failure 6. 2011 on: What Next?

(Written by me, illustrated by Thomas Pitilli, lettering and headers by Warp Graphics.)

This comic was produced by Grist for the Climate Desk collaboration.