2011 - %3, April

With Transparency Bill, Federal Government Acknowledges Internet Exists

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 10:05 AM EDT

The federal government produces a lot of paper: memos, data sheets, research reports, and the actual legislation that makes it into law. Stuff that curious, concerned citizens should have easy access to. On, say, the internet.

Now Congress wants to help people access that data. On Monday, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-New York) introduced complementary legislative proposals in the House and Senate that are intended to improve public access to government records. The Tester-Israel Public Online Information Act (POIA, pronounced poy-ah) would require all government-held information that's already supposed to be public to be posted online. "By freeing government information from its paper silos, the Public Online Information Act gives the public what they need to participate in government as active and informed citizens," said Ellen Miller, executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation.

The liberated information will include reports on lobbying activities by government contractors, financial filings of high-level government officials, and information on the trips made by executive branch officials and paid for by non-government third parties. POIA also gives government agencies three years to prepare to comply with the new rules, and asks the Office of Management and Budget's "E-Government Administrator" to guide the rest of the government through the process. Since POIA will apply only to "newly created" government information, or data released after the bill is enacted, it puts less of a burden on agencies. Unfortunately, that means that vital, hard-to-access information that has already been published in paper form wouldn't necessarily be posted on the web.

Despite its shortcomings, Tester is proud of the bill. "We’ve got to make sure transparency is keeping up with technology. A little sunshine on government is always a good thing, " he said Monday. Israel shares Tester's joy at the soon-to-be-tapped potential of storing stuff online. "People across the country—from scholars to school children—should be able to see any public government information from the convenience of their computer," he said.

POIA is a huge first step towards a more open government. But its exemption of older records weakens the bill. Eventually, all that stuff should go online, too.

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Is Medicaid More Popular Than Washington Thinks?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 10:04 AM EDT
Via the Kaiser Family Foundation/kff.org

With much hoopla and fawning press coverage, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is rolling out his 2012 budget plan on Tuesday. Though his budget's reach is massive, promising $4 trillion in cuts, critics have seized on Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system.

As I reported in February, Republicans have been preparing for months to gut Medicaid by proposing a "block-grant" system that would radically transform the program and allow states to make major cuts in benefits and eligibility. The prevailing assumption inside Washington is that Ryan's proposal to privatize Medicare is far more politically combustible than his attempt to cut health care for the poor. And Democrats are already trying to make hay of his attack on seniors. 

But new polling from the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation also suggests that Medicaid is more popular than Beltway insiders might assume. Though public support for Medicaid lags slightly behind support for Social Security and Medicare, it's still robust: According to the KFF poll, only 13 percent of the public was willing to support major cuts to Medicaid, as compared to 8 percent on Social Security. According to Drew Altman, KFF's CEO and president:

Sixty-four percent supported "no reductions" at all in Social Security as a way to reduce the deficit, 56% in Medicare, and 47% in Medicaid, hardly the mark of an unpopular program.  Forty-six percent of independents and a little more than a third (35%) of Republicans said they would "not support any reductions at all" in Medicaid to reduce the deficit…

Fifty-nine percent of the American people said Medicaid was either "very important" to them or their families (39%) or "somewhat important" (20%).

Altman explains that part of the support for Medicaid comes from the services it provides for the elderly and disabled: though the program's usually described as an entitlement for the poor, seniors and the disabled make up two-thirds of Medicaid costs. But there are other reasons that Medicaid has such robust public support. Due to the economic recession, more families are on Medicaid than ever, with 69.5 million Americans now on the rolls. Altman writes:

[Medicaid] has become more ingrained in the fabric of American life than has been generally realized…Medicaid now covers nearly one in three children, with the recession driving many previously middle-income children onto the program, providing coverage their parents no doubt value.

So neither Democrats nor Republicans should assume that Americans simply will look the other way if there are deep cuts to Medicaid. With more Americans benefitting from the program than ever—and still hurting from the impact of the recession—there could be a bigger backlash than anyone expects.

What's Hurting White America? It's Not the Welfare State

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 8:32 AM EDT

Since the election of Barack Obama, right-wingers like Glenn Beck have made a concerted effort to craft a narrative in which whites are the new oppressed and reverse-racism, rather than actual racism, is the new great challenge of our times. CNN captured the zeitgeist last month, when it headlined a story, "Are whites racially oppressed?" (the actual article was far less hysterical).

Charles Murray, the libertarian scholar most famous for his book The Bell Curve, thankfully, did not go down that path in his "State of White America" address to the American Enterprise Institute last night. Instead, he focused on a set of social trends he believes "will end what has made America, America." Specifically, an ever-widening gap between what he calls "the new lower class" and "the new elite," which he attributes to the slow creep of the European-style welfare state.

He's offered a glimpse of this before, but he expanded on it at AEI: Essentially, he says, the four virtues that hold the key to American Exceptionalism—marriage, religiosity, work ethic, and honesty—are in steady decline among the white lower class, with destructive consequences. It's an age-old problem: the government gives you food stamps, and the next thing you know, your marriage has collapsed, you've quite your job, you've turned your back to God, and you're facing 5 to 10 for holding up a Piggly Wiggly.

"The parallel that keeps nagging at me is Rome," he explained, comparing the nation's current precipice to the classical civilization's conversion from a republic to an empire. We're not going to collapse, he says, but society will become a lot more stratified.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 5, 2011

Tue Apr. 5, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Spc. Justin Lance (left) and Pfc. Tyquan Dozier, 59th Mobility Augmentation Company, 8th Engineer Battalion, Fort Hood, Texas, provide security during a route clearance mission in Zabul province, Afghanistan, March 25, 2011. Photo via US Army.

The Courageous, Serious, Gutsy Paul Ryan

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 11:32 PM EDT

David Brooks on Paul Ryan's long-term budget proposal:

Today, Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is scheduled to release the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes....His proposal will set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion....This budget tackles just about every politically risky issue with brio and guts....Paul Ryan has grasped reality with both hands. He’s forcing everybody else to do the same.

Courageous. Serious. Gutsy. I imagine that within a few days this will be the consensus view of the entire Beltway punditocracy. A plan dedicated almost entirely to slashing social spending in a country that's already the stingiest spender in the developed world, while simultaneously cutting taxes on the rich in a country with the lowest tax rates in the developed world — well, what could be more serious than that?

I think I'm going to be sick.

The Top Media Policy Stories of the Week

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 6:23 PM EDT

Editor's note: Every other week, The Media Consortium rounds up the latest media policy news in a blog called the The Wavelength, posted below.

Last week, the New York Times debuted a long-awaited paywall, and stats blogger Nate Silver used the launch as an opportunity to explore the value of a news organization based on the amount of original reporting it produces. While Silver's rankings could be a valuable tool for news organizations, Mother Jones' Nick Baumann finds Silver's methodology wanting.

"The results, as you might expect, made the Times [paywall] look like a pretty good value," Baumann writes. But the real problems are in how Silver ranks "original reporting"—namely that online citations don't always identify the outlet, and that larger, established news organizations sometimes get credit for breaking stories when smaller orgs actually had the scoop first. That's not to say that rankings like this don't have incredible value for media, but that they need to be explored in a deeper manner. Baumann writes:

It'd be nice to see a foundation interested in journalism—the Knight Foundation, say, or Google.org—invest some time and money to expand and rework the rankings. It would be great to see media outlets competing to produce more and better original reporting.

Ultimately, Baumann believes rankings like this, if done right, could be a valuable barometer for measuring quality in journalism. Let's hope someone takes up his call to arms.

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Radioactive Fish and Birds: Dangers from Japan?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

Over the weekend the Japanese Science Ministry released data from midweek showing large amounts of radioactive iodine had been discovered in seawater off the coast. According to NHK, "the detected level of iodine-131 was 79.4 becquerels per liter, twice the legal standard for water discharged from nuclear plants."

This information follows news that has been coming out in dribs and drabs about a supposed crack in the plant and radioactive water leaking into the ground beneath the plant. While the danger of radioactivity in Japan and elsewhere has generally been played down, these discoveries raise several potentially significant questions for Japan, the central and northern Pacific, and in the United States, primarily for Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.

The first involves fish. The Pacific currents running along the  Japanese coast go north up the Asian coast before turning towards the Bering Sea, and on down through the Gulf of Alaska to the U.S. northwest coast. These currents mainly move from west to east. Fish are influenced by these currents, and in particular the great stocks of tuna along the warmer waters on, above, and below the equator and in the central Pacific.

College Republicans Still Acting Like College Republicans

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 4:20 PM EDT

Here's the Dallas Morning News:

An SMU junior and chairman of Texas College Republicans resigned his post this week after a video was posted of him describing getting "hammered," "hooking up" with a young woman and calling political opponents a homosexual slur.

He also calls his political opponents "nerds," which, I'm told, is a word people used to use to make fun of other people in the late 1980s. The context is that this was part of an endorsement speech for Alex Schriver, a leading candidate for chairman of the College Republicans, who was so enthused by the speech he posted it on his website. Now, one of Schriver's opponents—presumably a nerd—has turned it into an attack ad, complete with scary background music and the requisite white-text-on-black-background. Witness:

This is more or less business-as-usual for the College Republicans, who for decades have operated as basically a training camp for future GOP operatives (Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, and Roger Stone are all alums). Here's what Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote six years ago:

[W]hen I talked to College Republicans in North Carolina, I heard constant, ridiculous allegations thrown at rivals within the organizations. This rival had an illegitimate son in Tennessee, that one paid for an abortion for some poor girl from Missouri. When I asked an innocent question about a network of political consultants in Raleigh, one College Republican stopped me imediately: "Surely you must have heard," he said ominously, his drawl thick, "about them bisexual orgies."

For what it's worth, Charles McCaslin, the former Texas College Republicans chairman, has since apologized to any gays, women—and, yes, nerds—he may have offended.

Obama to Try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Military Court

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 4:00 PM EDT
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a Red Cross photo taken at Guantanamo Bay (left) and a photo (right) reportedly taken by US forces shortly after they first captured Mohammed in early 2003.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, civil libertarians hoped that Barack Obama would roll back what they saw as the worst of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies. Obama fell far short of their hopes, and now he's dealt them yet another punch to the gut. On Monday afternoon, just hours after the Obama campaign texted its launch announcement to supporters, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that purported 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other suspected 9/11 plotters will be tried by Obama's version of the Bush-era military commissions.

So on the same day he formally asked America for a second term in office, Barack Obama moved to ensure that the Bush administration's Guantanamo-Bay-based system of two-tiered justice for horrific terrorism-related crimes will endure.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, popularly known as KSM, is not just the self-proclaimed "mastermind" of the September 11th attacks. He's also perhaps the most prominent target of Bush-era interrogation policies. He was waterboarded multiple times and held in CIA "black sites," where detainees were subjected to extreme temperatures, solitary confinement, extreme sleep deprivation, "stress positions," and a form of beating known as "walling." KSM's trial, civilian or otherwise, is sure to be among the most followed and most controversial in history—a true "trial of the century." And by opting for a military commission trial for KSM, Obama was putting a final stamp of approval on some of the central elements of the Bush administration's handling of terrorism suspects.

During the press conference, Holder seemed frustrated that the administration had been forced—by congressional maneuvering, political demagoguery, and public opposition—to change its position. After all, it wasn't supposed to happen this way. The Obama team originally planned to try KSM and his compatriots in federal civilian court in New York City, following a precedent that has led to the conviction and imprisonment of hundreds of terrorists. But New York's mayor and chief of police balked, and any remaining political support for federal court trials collapsed. Now, KSM et. al. will face a military commission in Guantanamo Bay—a system that has convicted just a handful of people, most of whom received lighter sentences than are generally handed down for terrorism-related convictions in civilian courts.

Many people believe that, if he's guilty of the crimes he's accused of—namely, the cold-blooded murder of thousands of Americans—KSM deserves to die. But the military commissions, even under Bush, have never sentenced anyone to death. None of the military lawyers at Gitmo have ever defended a capital case through to the penalty phase. And as Holder pointed out in his press conference, it's still an "open question" whether someone who pleads guilty in a military commission can even be executed at all. But hey—at least John McCain and Joe Lieberman are happy.

"Safety" Bonuses for Deepwater Horizon Rig Owner?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 2:35 PM EDT

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in April 2010, killing 11 crew members and unleashing nearly 5 million barrels of oil on the Gulf of Mexico, is back in the news today amid public outrage that the company awarded massive bonuses to its staffers last year for the company's "safety."

Citing 2010 as the "best year in safety performance in our company's history," Transocean awarded five top executives $898,282 in bonuses for the year, according its proxy statement. Colin Barr summed it up pretty well over at Fortune: "It seems like it should be hard to qualify for a safety-related bonus in a year in which one of your rigs blows up, causing deaths and dozens of injuries." You don't say!

After getting some well-deserved criticism for this, the company admitted that it "may have been insensitive" and acknowledged that the company "continues to mourn" those lost on the Deepwater Horizon. The incident is a good reminder of the fact that, while BP got much of the scorn in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Transocean was also deeply involved—and in the days after the explosion, sought to evade responsibility.

Following the latest news on Transocean, a pair of House Democrats asked investigators to look into whether the company's decisions about shifts and schedules for workers may have contributed to the disaster. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Diana DeGette (D-Calif.) sent letters on Monday to the Chemical Safety Board and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) noting that, according to the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation of last year's accident, Transocean extended the shifts of workers on the rig just months before:

Documents provided to the Committee indicate that the schedule shifted from a 14-day-on-the-rig/14-day-off-the-rig to a 21-day-on-the-rig/21-day-off-the-rig pattern. According to Transocean’s lawyers, this was partially a cost-saving measure. Lloyd’s Register, an independent assessor, conducted a survey of workers aboard the rig and found that this change was having a negative impact on the workers.

According to the papers filed with the committee, the move saved Transocean approximately $200,000 per rig each year, or nearly $2.5 million total annually. But the independent assessor found that the extended shifts had a negative impact on workers, with some complaining of "fatigue issues." The letter also notes that six of the eleven employees who died that day were on day 20 of the 21-day shift, while a seventh was on day 19.

All of this, of course, raises questions about just how safe Transocean really was—and how much they may have been at fault in the accident.