2011 - %3, March

Obama's New Energy Snooze

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 1:34 PM EDT

Unfortunately, it's difficult to disagree with the Economist correspondent who wrote this about the energy proposal President Obama unveiled today:

It is hard to see his half-baked, reheated list of proposals as anything more than a reassurance to the environmentally-minded, and to Americans fretting about rising fuel prices, that the president feels their pain — unlike those nasty Republicans.

The proposal itself is pretty pedestrian, and in any case has zero chance of being approved by Congress. More details at the link, as well as from Ezra Klein and Stuart Staniford. Overall, it's hard to work up the enthusiasm even for a lengthy blog post about this, let alone anything more.

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Crazytown Just Keeps Getting Crazier

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 1:09 PM EDT

A growing swath of conservatives apparently thinks that states can seize control of all federal healthcare spending just by banding together and getting Congress to agree. They also apparently believe that states can require taxes to be paid only in gold or silver bullion. What's next? Now they believe that the House can pass its own budget, H.R. 1, without agreement from either the Senate or the president:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said at a press conference that Republicans would consider the Government Shutdown Prevention Act on Friday. The bill would make H.R. 1 law if the Senate fails to pass a measure “before April 6” to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.

....“We’re serious. We want to take care of this problem so we can get on about the business of this nation and get Americans back to work,” Cantor said.

By Republican standards, I guess this actually does count as serious. But that says more about modern Republican standards than it does about the meaning of the word "serious."

Countervailing Powers

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 12:19 PM EDT

David Leonhardt on Fed policy:

Whenever officials at the Federal Reserve confront a big decision, they have to weigh two competing risks. Are they doing too much to speed up economic growth and touching off inflation? Or are they doing too little and allowing unemployment to stay high?

It’s clear which way the Fed has erred recently. It has done too little....Why is this happening? Above all, blame our unbalanced approach to monetary policy.

One group of Fed officials and watchers worries constantly about the prospect of rising inflation, no matter what the economy is doing. Some of them are haunted by the inflation of the 1970s and worry it may return at any time. Others spend much of their time with bank executives or big investors, who generally have more to lose from high inflation than from high unemployment.

There is no equivalent group — at least not one as influential — that obsesses over unemployment.

Hmmm. A big, powerful, influential group that obsesses over unemployment. Sounds like a great idea. But I wonder what kind of group that could possibly be? Some kind of organization of workers, I suppose. Too bad there's nothing like that around.

Supreme Court: Withholding Evidence Now Officially OK

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 12:06 PM EDT

Today I have the unfortunate job of following up on the case of John Thompson, who was sent to death row in 1985 after a New Orleans DA deliberately withheld evidence showing that Thompson's blood type didn't match a previous crime he'd been convicted of, and also deliberately withheld various other pieces of evidence that exonerated Thompson of the murder he was charged with. After the murder charges were eventually tossed out, a court awarded him $14 million in civil damages, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court overturned the award:

In rejecting the judgment, Justice Thomas described the case as a "single incident" in which mistakes were made. He said Thompson did not prove a pattern of similar violations that would justify holding the city's government liable for the wrongdoing. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined to form the majority.

There were at least four other prosecutors who knew about the blood test, as well as a number of other cases like this one in New Orleans through the years. Nonetheless, Clarence Thomas figures this was just a single bad apple. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Tea Party Express Jumps Into Wisconsin Judicial Race

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 11:49 AM EDT

In recent years, judicial elections have been among some of the nastiest in the country. But next week's election for a seat on the Wisconsin state supreme court might go down in history as one of the worst. The election comes smack in the middle of Wisconsin's epic fight between the GOP-controlled legislature and governor's office and the state's public employee unions. The political warfare that wracked the state capital for weeks over Gov. Scott Walker's bill to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights has moved to the courts, where opponents of the law have filed a host of lawsuits to prevent its implementation. The fate of Walker's bill will eventually be decided by a slim margin on the state's highest court, making the stakes in the race extremely high. As a result, out-of-state interest groups have been pouring money into the judicial campaign. This week, the Tea Party Express upped the ante by pledging to raise tens of thousands of dollars to re-elect Justice David Prosser, an incumbent judge who liberals have said will be nothing more than a rubber stamp for Walker.

Tea Party Express is the California-based political action committee created by a group of GOP political consultants, which helped elect Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). It also backed Alaska's Joe Miller in his surprise upset of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary last year, demonstrating the PAC's political savvy and fundraising prowess. Tea Party Express is the largest and most active PAC associated with the tea party movement. On Tuesday it was sending out appeals to supporters seeking to raise $15,000 in 18 hours to launch a new wave of TV ads in Wisconsin. Sal Russo, the PAC's founder, wrote in an email that because the group has created a state PAC for this particular campaign, "there are NO contribution limits, and corporate contributions ARE accepted."

Both candidates in the race have taken public money for the election so are not eligible to accept private contributions. That's why the campaign is being waged almost entirely by third partys like Tea Party Express, which will be able to have an outsized impact on the race. Tea Party Express, of course, isn't the only outside group getting involved in the judicial campaign. The Club for Growth has pledged $300,000 to supoprt Prosser, and liberal and union activists have created their own outside spending operation, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, that has said it will spend $3 million to defeat Prosser. Prosser, a Republican who makes up part of a 4-3 conservative majority on the court, served in the state assembly with Walker and voted with him 95 percent of the time, according to liberal activists working to unseat him. Liberal activists have run ads against him that say "Prosser is Walker," turning the race into a referendum on the GOP agenda.

Unions and liberals are backing state Justice Department attorney JoAnne Kloppenburg. Tea Party Express' new ads suggest that Kloppenburg is a four-time loser, having failed to land other judicial plum spots she's aspired to. But the campaign is likely to get even nastier in the last few days. The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee has already aired ads indicating that 30 years ago Prosser, then a district attorney, failed to prosecute an alleged pedophile priest who went on to molest many more kids. As the campaign comes down to the wire and more outside corporate money pours in, the attacks are only likely to escalate. Whether Tea Party Express can work its magic to save Prosser from the extremely angry and motivated union voters remains to be seen.

Quote of the Day: "With Notably Rare Exceptions...."

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

From Alan Greenspan:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

Henry Farrell comments:

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes such as “I am aware of all Internet traditions” and the “argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning — “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” and “With notably rare exceptions, (the Third Punic War for example), the Carthaginian war machine was extremely successful,” but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original. But then, that’s why we have commenters.

Quite so. But what makes this even worse than it seems (if that's possible) is that 2008 is hardly the only notable exception to global economic stability since the globalization and deregulation of finance began in earnest three decades ago. While they're playing Henry's game, commenters might also want to spare a few moments to recall some of the other slightly lesser catastrophes that Greenspan rather blithely passed over.

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Best Lawmaker Voicemail Ever

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 10:43 AM EDT

I have a story up today on the new push by conservative lawmakers to challenge the Federal Reserve by promoting the use of gold and silver currency at the state level. So far, Utah is the lone state to pass such legislation (as of last week, gold and silver coins are now legal tender in the Beehive State), but more than a dozen states have considered "hard money" proposals since the start of 2009.

Georgia Republican Rep. Bobby Franklin, who sponsored a bill that's currently before his state legislature mandating the use of gold and silver for paying state taxes, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for the article. That might be because, as his secretary told me, "he's a little media-shy." Or it might be because of a story my colleague Jen Phillips wrote two weeks ago, about a bill Franklin sponsored that would potentially proscribe prescribe the death penalty for women who have miscarriages. Or maybe the two are related.

But I've buried the lede. This is what you get when you call his home phone number:

This is State Represenative Bobby Franklin. Thank you for calling to give me encouragement about my sponsorship of House Bill 1, recognizing that pre-natal murder is murder. I'm not able to take that encouragement right now, so at the tone please leave your name, number, and a message.

Emphasis mine. For the record, we weren't calling to offer encouragement.

Ex-Bachmann Chief of Staff, Campaign Manager Back Tim Pawlenty

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 10:31 AM EDT
Flickr/theqspeaks

With Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) likely to announce her presidential candidacy this spring for the 2012 presidential campaign, the great state of Minnesota will have two politicos, Bachmann and former governor Tim Pawlenty, angling for the White House. As Congress' tea party leader, Bachmann has an impressive, especially in hard-line conservative circles, which could give Pawlenty nightmares in the GOP primaries. But in a surprise move, a trio of ex-Bachmann staffers have come out in support of Pawlenty, including her former chief of staff and an ex-campaign manager.

As the Minnesota Independent reported, Gina Countryman, Bachmann's former congressional campaign manager, has come out strongly in favor in Pawlenty, using her Twitter feed to drum up support for "T-Paw 2012." Pawlenty recently announced he was creating a presidential exploratory committee, the first official step toward launching a full-fledged presidential bid.

Then there's Ron Carey, Bachmann's one-time chief of staff, who recently told Fox News he's backing Pawlenty because, well, Bachmann's just not electable. "Electability is a very, very high attribute you have to have this year to win," he said. "I don’t want to have an emotionally filled endeavor only to get 35 percent [of the vote] in November [2012]." And Bachmann's former liaison to constituents, Tim Gould, hosted a fundraiser in 2010 for Pawlenty's political action committee, Freedom First PAC, a strong hint that he's backing T-Paw, too. (Though, to be fair, that fundraiser was before Bachmann hinted she might run in 2012.)

While Bachmann has yet to officially declare her candidacy, a source in the Minnesota congresswoman's camp told CNN last week she plans to create an exploratory committee by "early summer." However, to make sure Bachmann gets a spot in Republican presidential debates, she might enter the race even earlier. The source told CNN, "If you [debate sponsors] come to us and say, 'To be in our debates, you have to have an exploratory committee,' then we'll say, 'Okay, fine...I'll go file the forms.'"

FBI Oversight Hearing: Live Coverage

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 10:29 AM EDT

FBI director Robert Mueller is testifying before the Senate's judiciary committee today as part of what is likely to be the final FBI oversight hearing of his 10-year-term, which expires September 4. I'm covering the action on Twitter.

I'm especially interested to see if anyone asks Mueller about Gulet Mohamed, the Virginia teen who was detained in Kuwait, allegedly at the behest of the US, earlier this year. Mohamed says he was beaten and was asked questions that could only have come from US law enforcement, and that FBI agents interrogated him repeatedly without his lawyer, even after he asked for one. You can follow the action here:

UPDATE: No one asked about Mohamed.

BP Still Doesn't Want You to See Its Tarballs

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Lots has changed on Elmer's Island. Nearly a year after the great oilpocalypse of 2010, this Louisiana wildlife refuge about 100 miles south of New Orleans isn't crawling with teams of cleanup workers raking big black pools of crude off the sand; there's no cleanup machinery or equipment; the only immediately visible remnants of the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill are the occasional tarballs, big as a kid's head, that wash onto the shore.

Not that I can just waltz onto this public beach to see all that—not everything has changed. Like some lame iteration of Groundhog Day, the hundredth time I try to pull onto the Elmer's Island access road from Highway 1 in southern Louisiana—some 200 days after the last time I tried it—I am, once again, stopped. Last year, it was cops blocking the road. Now it's private security hired by BP.

"You have to get permission from central command to come on here, and then you'll probably have to be escorted by an official," the security guard tells me.

"How hard is it to get permission?"

"Usually pretty hard." She says a local reporter couldn't get through recently.