2011 - %3, July

Dems, Reformers Fight to Close Political Dark Money Loophole

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 4:49 PM EDT

A top Congressional Democrat, joined by two leading campaign finance reform groups here in Washington, has raised the ante on his demand that a federal court close a gaping loophole in the nation's laws against dark money in politics. In April, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and two campaign finance groups announced that they were filing suit against the Federal Election Commission, after more than 90 percent of the funders behind election ads went unnamed in the 2010 elections. On Tuesday, they submitted a new brief and asked the judge to consider the challenge with haste.

The legal challenge zeroes in on a decision made by the FEC, the nation's underwhelming watchdog for campaign finance, that dramatically undercut federal disclosure requirements for what are called "electioneering" advertisements—ads that outright support or oppose a candidate. Here's what happened in a nutshell: In 2007, the FEC essentially told corporations and labor unions that unless donors said outright that they wanted their money to fund electioneering ads, those donors could stay secret—disclosure rules be damned. The decision flew in the face of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law of 2002, which said that any union or corporation funding electioneering ads must reveal all contributors of $1,000 or more.

The FEC's decision quickly became the loophole that ate the rule. According to Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the pro-reform Campaign Legal Center, "In 2010, groups making electioneering communications disclosed the funders of less than 10 percent of the $79.9 million spent on electioneering communications."

Van Hollen's suit essentially argues that by creating this crater-sized disclosure loophole, the FEC overstepped its bounds and the limits of what it can and can't do. Now Van Hollen and the reformers have filed a motion for summary judgment in the suit. "The disclosure loophole opened by the FEC has already allowed millions of secret dollars to influence our elections and the anonymous spending is only likely to increase in 2012," Malloy said. "But the American people deserve to have disclosure about the sources of the money being spent by corporations and other special interest groups to buy influence over government decisions."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: The New Normal

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 3:06 PM EDT

From Jon Chait, explaining how the definition of "reasonable" changes over time:

The GOP's willingness to undermine the full faith and credit of the Treasury in pursuit of anti-tax fundamentalism is shocking now, but eventually it will come to be seen as simply part of the process.

Yep. In the same way that Wall Street hoovering up a third of all corporate profits is the new normal. Or that 9% unemployment is the new normal. Or that obstruction, rather than legislation, is the new normal for Congress. Or that massive spending cuts during a recession is the new normal. Or that conducting three overseas wars at the same time is the new normal.

The new normal kind of sucks, doesn't it?

Obama or GOP: Who Has the Edge in Debt Fight?

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 2:58 PM EDT

My perceptive pals at NBC News' First Read have a good take on the current state of play in the debt ceiling show-down: 

*** Who’s got the leverage? So who's got the leverage in the debt-limit talks? Leverage depends on who the negotiators are answering to. For instance, the White House believes it has the most leverage because swing voters and independent voters simply want a deal done. They are exhausted from the Washington political games, the gridlock, the inability to solve problems. (By the way, this Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive in history.) GOP leaders think THEY have the leverage, because there are NO cracks in the base and they have their own polling showing that, while independents are turned off by the process, they do NOT want taxes raised and want to see government cut. Bottom line: Republicans believe that on the SUBSTANCE, the middle is with them (if they sell it properly), even if on PROCESS, the middle might be more on the side of the president. (Of course, there's a reason the president uses the phrase "balanced approach" all the time; it's their argument on substance). President Obama is expected to engage in talks Wednesday either on Capitol Hill or at the White House, but will it be with Republican leaders as well? That's in question.

*** Victory is in the eye of the voter: It also looks like Republicans don’t want to hand President Obama something that looks like a victory, in a presidential election cycle; that would cause the base to erupt even more than a perceived tax hike. The GOP, though, can already be granted a measure of victory for dictating the terms of the debate – all about spending cuts. But will that be enough for the base? Senate Republicans are open to the idea of a short-term deal (something really no one wants) with some revenue raisers, like eliminating ethanol subsidies. But House Republicans don’t want more than one vote before the end of 2012 and know they have dwindling capital with their Tea Party freshmen.

That's a fine analysis. But President Barack Obama has not yet resorted to one piece of potentially potent ammo: the charge that the GOPs are super-crazy, reckless ideologues willing to risk destroying the economy to protect their beloved tax breaks for the rich. He certainly has sort of made that point in a self-described "restrained" fashion. But the president hasn't truly unloaded on the opposition. He usually doesn't. He'd rather take the high and responsible road and work out a deal. So there's no expectation he will slam the Rs in such a manner now. But were he to do so, would that change any of the handicapping?

Fate of Kansas Clinics Still Unclear

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 2:58 PM EDT

Despite the efforts of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to shut down all abortion providers in the state, a judge blocked the new, highly restrictive regulations for abortion clinics from going into effect on Friday. The temporary injunction has allowed all three of the state's abortion clinics to remain open for now, at least while they await another day in court.

"I don't know if this is a short-lived victory or a long-lived one," Jeff Pederson, the manager at Kansas City's Aid for Women, told Mother Jones. He was not sure when the clinic's lawyers would be back in court to seek a complete suspension of the new rules.

The health department, however, indicated that it still intends to move forward with its new licensing plan for abortion clinics. The regulations that were supposed to go into effect on July 1 were only temporary, to be in place for 120 days. The department had issued them as a short-term response to the measure that Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed into law in May. The department is supposed to have a permanent licensing plan in place by October, which is expected to include similar regulations. Via the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

Robert Moser, secretary of health and environment and a Brownback appointee, said his department respected the ruling and would "follow the law."

But Moser added: "Judge Murguia’s ruling is narrowly tailored and does not prevent KDHE from moving forward to establish permanent licensing regulations."

The department said in a press release on Thursday that it will hold a public hearing on the permanent rules on September 7 in Topeka.

The clinics may have won the first round, this latest battle in the never-ending abortion wars is far from over.

Mitt Romney's Flip-Flop Machine Goes Into Overdrive

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 1:30 PM EDT

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, said to have raised as much as $20 million in the past three months, just can't get his story straight. On multiple occasions, the former Massachusetts governor has claimed that President Obama made the Great Recession "worse" with his economic policies. As Romney put it on the day he officially unveiled his candidacy, "When [Obama] took office, the economy was in recession, and he made it worse, and he made it last longer."

Except that's nowhere near true. As Washington Post "Fact-Checker" Glenn Kessler notes, the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the recession officially over in June 2009, six months after Obama took office. So, then, how can Obama have made the recession "worse" and "last longer"? After vetting Romney's argument, the Associated Press concluded, "Obama did not, as Romney alleged, make the economy worse than it was when he took office."

Last week, when questioned by a reporter on this point, Romney didn't defend his assertions or trot out economic data to prove them; instead, he claimed he'd never said such a thing. "I didn't say that things are worse," he said. "What I said was that the economy hasn't turned around." In fact he'd said exactly that on at least three prior occasions.

Now, Romney has flipped again. Asked by a local reporter in Amherst, New Hampshire, about his prior claims about Obama and the economy, Romney reverted to his original, debunked position. "The recession was made deeper and more painful for more Americans by virtue of the president's plan," Romney said. "The recovery has been slower and more painful for millions of Americans because of the president's failures. He made the recession worse and the recovery more anemic." Here's the video:

Romney, of course, is running as the GOP candidate best suited to fix the ailing American economy. Perhaps he'd better fix his talking points first.

Wall Street: Yep, They Still Own the Place

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 1:13 PM EDT

Today the blogosphere features a fight over "business process" patents — things like Amazon's patent for one-click checkout, for example. These have been abused pretty badly, and Wall Street is fighting back. How? They got Chuck Schumer to insert a special provision in a bill that changes the ground rules for challenging business process patents related to “a financial product or service.” It's good to have friends in high places, no?

Andrew Ross Sorkin is outraged. This provision "is perhaps the most blatant demonstration of the lobbying power of Wall Street and, just as important, the willingness of Congress to support the interests of the banks, even in the face of clear evidence that the law has no purpose other than to benefit the financial services industry."

Felix Salmon is a lot less outraged. "Sorkin’s attempts to defend the idea of financial business-method patents ring pretty hollow....The law will benefit the financial services industry. No one is arguing that point. And it will hurt rentiers with patents. The important question is whether it’s a good idea from a public-policy perspective. Sorkin ducks that question entirely. But the fact is that if we want a level playing field in financial services, getting rid of business-method patents is an extremely good idea."

But why fight over this? I officially declare everyone right today. Business process patents have been abused, and Felix is right that making them more difficult to get in the financial services arena is a good idea. At the same time, the fact that Wall Street is the only industry getting patent relief from Congress really is a blatant demonstration, in Dick Durbin's immortal words, of the fact that banks "frankly own the place."

I think the Schumer provision is terrible policy. We need to overhaul the way we handle business process patents, but the worst possible way to do that is to start singling out specific industries for special treatment. After all, having gotten what they wanted, do you think Wall Street will sign on to any future effort to broadly reform policy in the area of business process patents? Nope. They might even fight it if it would replace their special provision and possibly make them slightly worse off than before. This is practically a parody of bad lawmaking, and as with nearly anything having to do with Chuck Schumer and Wall Street, it's a terrible idea and deserves an early death.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Philly Sacrifices 26 School Kitchens to the Austerity Gods

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 12:40 PM EDT
PB&J as metaphor: a prefab lunch in an Illinois public-school cafeteria.

As negotiations over the "debt ceiling" drag on (handy MoJo explainer here), one thing is clear: Austerity is coming to the United States. No matter what—whether the Republicans accept minor tax hikes as part of a deal; whether bond investors freak out or don't freak out; whether Obama and the Democrats completely cave in to GOP insanity or just partially cave (as they already have)—the federal government will slice spending by about $1 trillion over the next decade, most likely including cuts to important social-insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid

Let's be clear: Slashing government spending at a time of lingering 9 percent unemployment and stagnant wages is imbecilic. You don't have to be John Maynard Keynes to understand that when corporations stop hiring and investing, the federal government has to fill the gap, not widen it. And as the University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith has demonstrated numerous times over the past year (most recently here), the most-dire problems facing the nation are the related ones of underemployment and underinvestment in vital infrastructure, not budget deficits or the national debt. Our existing fossil-fuel-based infrastructure—roads, bridges—is crumbling. And if we're going to transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy, we'll need to build up decentralized electricity grids, wind and solar energy capacity, mass transit, local and regional food systems, and more—investments that aren't being made at nearly a sufficient rate by private actors.

Galbraith likes to quote Keynes, architect of the postwar recovery: "There is work to do; there are men to do it. Why not bring them together?" Instead, congressional GOP leaders and (to a lesser extent) the president seem intent on keeping them apart. Results will likely be disastrous; the cascading effects of ill-timed austerity will likely lead to yet larger bills down the road. Penny wise, dollar poor.

Wrecking the Country for Political Gain

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 12:18 PM EDT

Megan McArdle writes today that if Republicans really follow though on their insane threat to allow the United States to default on its debt, it would probably be good for Democrats in the 2012 election. A reader asks: if that's the case, then why are Democrats fighting so hard against it? Why not just let the default happen, blame Republicans, and then reap the benefits next November? Megan replies:

I think some version of this question is going through many conservative minds. But it commits a fundamental error: it assumes that this is some sort of zero-sum game....What the people asking this question are missing is that the budget needn't be zero-sum: it can be negative-sum. It is possible for the Democrats to lose without the Republicans winning. Both sides can end up worse off.

Nope. In this case, we're talking about a strictly zero-sum outcome set: 435 House seats, 33 Senate seats, and the presidency. In pure partisan terms, if one side loses ground, the other side gains. That's completely independent of how default affects the country more generally.

So why are Democrats fighting against default? "Leave aside the naive thoughts that Democrats might be trying to avoid default because they, like, care something about the honor of their nation," says Megan. Indeed. I leave the rest of the blog post in the able hands of my commenters.

Republicans and Consumer Safety

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 11:36 AM EDT

The LA Times' David Lazarus asks a question:

What is it about consumer protection that Republican lawmakers don't like? Is it that they want to see their constituents fleeced and flimflammed by businesses? Is it that they don't care?

Hmmm. Tough question. Let's keep reading:

Or is it something as craven as carrying water for corporate interests simply because that's where the money is?

Bingo! I think we have a winner. Read the whole thing for all the grim details.

The ISI and the Murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 11:07 AM EDT

A few weeks ago I wrote about the apparent murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist who had long been a thorn in the side of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service. On May 31, he was found in a canal 80 miles outside of Islamabad, tortured and beaten, with his cell phone wiped clean from the previous 18 days. Today, the New York Times reports that American intelligence is pretty sure that this was indeed the ISI's handiwork:

New classified intelligence [...] showed that senior officials of the spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, directed the attack on him in an effort to silence criticism, two senior administration officials said.

....A third senior American official said there was enough other intelligence and indicators immediately after Mr. Shahzad’s death for the Americans to conclude that the ISI had ordered him killed. “Every indication is that this was a deliberate, targeted killing that was most likely meant to send shock waves through Pakistan’s journalist community and civil society,” said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the information.

....It was possible that Mr. Shahzad had become too cavalier, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani columnist and author. “The rules of the game are not completely well defined,” she said. “Sometimes friendly elements cross an imaginary threshold and it is felt they must be taught a lesson.”

In other news, American intelligence continues to believe that the ISI and others are actively funding and supporting Taliban militant groups in Afghanistan. Quite a partner we have here.