2011 - %3, September

Ron Suskind Explains His Anita Dunn Quote

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 6:15 PM PDT

When Ron Suskind interviewed former White House communications director Anita Dunn for his book, Confidence Men, she told him that "if it weren't for the president," the Obama White House would have been in court for being a hostile workplace. But when the book appeared, those six words weren't part of the quote. I slammed Suskind for this yesterday, but today he explained what happened to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple:

Dunn, according to Suskind, was simply saying that her loyalty — and that of others — to the president prevented anyone from ever going legal with their issues....The quote was originally uttered in a long telephone conversation in April. Once he had a manuscript in hand, in the summer, Suskind called Dunn back and explained what he was prepared to publish. Dunn was the one who took issue with the preamble [this refers to the six words, I assume] — as it turns out, her husband was serving as White House counsel while she was communications director, and so she didn’t want to be making a comment about actionable conditions at the workplace given her husband’s role. So she petitioned Suskind to replace the preamble with the “looking back” treatment that’s now in print.

In general, I don't think there's any excuse for truncating a quote, regardless of whether you think it changes the meaning or not. But this is different: if it was Dunn herself who asked Suskind to truncate the quote, then he's blameless. Dunn herself apparently refuses to talk about this further, so we don't have her side of the story. But for now, it looks to me like Suskind is in the clear. He was actually helping out Dunn, who then had buyer's remorse when the quote appeared.

Just to complete the record, Wemple reports that when Suskind was researching the book he had already heard the "boys club" complaints about the White House (they've been widely reported before) and talked to another administration official about it:

Sympathetic to the women’s point of view, the official directed Suskind to speak with Dunn, who had left the White House for a consulting gig in town.

That’s the context that helps explain why Dunn was so forthcoming to Suskind: She would lend an authoritative and on-the-record voice to a lot of stuff he’d picked up. The author hastens to note that neither Dunn nor the anonymous White House official who made the referral was committing an act of insubordination. These officials were pleased that the president had taken steps to right the gender imbalance. “They felt that the president did step in here, and it was a management-teaching moment for him,” says Suskind.

So Dunn and others did feel the White House was a pretty hostile workplace for women, but they were also pleased that Obama addressed the problem once they brought it up with him. Unless Dunn decides to comment further, that's where things stand.

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The Great $16 Muffin Myth

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 5:37 PM PDT

I've been reading all day about the $16 muffins the Department of Justice served at one of its conferences, and I finally got curious about this. Is it really true? So I went to the DOJ Inspector General's website, got the report, and searched for "muffin." The following paragraph looks fairly impenetrable, but go ahead and plow through it anyway:

Considering the EOIR reported that at least 534 people received refreshments at its 2009 Legal Training Conference in Washington, D.C., it spent an average of $14.74 per attendee per day on food and beverages—just above the $14.72 JMD limit for refreshments. We credit the EOIR for implementing the following controls to reduce food and beverage costs: (1) it provided just refreshments and not full meals, (2) it ordered fewer refreshments than the total number of reported attendees, and (3) it received 15 gallons of coffee, 30 gallons of iced tea, and 200 pieces of fruit for free. However, many individual food and beverage items listed on conference invoices and paid by the EOIR were very costly. The EOIR spent $4,200 on 250 muffins and $2,880 on 300 cookies and brownies. By itemizing these costs, we determined that, with service and gratuity, muffins cost over $16 each and cookies and brownies cost almost $10 each.

So did DOJ really pay $16 for muffins? Of course not. In fact, it's obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they provided. 

This is unremarkable. In fact, I'm here to tell you that this happens All. The. Time. I've been involved in what feels like a thousand conferences of this kind, and I'd be shocked if it happened any other way. Hell, I'm surprised DOJ even got that much of a breakdown. Far more commonly, your event person negotiates what kind of refreshments you'll get, and the invoice ends up looking something like this:

Refreshment table (bev/morn/aft) — 5 days....................$39,500

None of this is to say that DOJ didn't overspend on its conferences. In fact, it sounds like they did—though in some cases this was just an artifact of applying overhead costs to the food instead of accounting for it separately. But the $16 muffin? That's a myth. It'll never die now that it's been delivered to posterity thanks to some enthusiast in the OIG who broke out a calculator and mistakenly assumed they could calculate actual costs this way, but it's still a myth.

DC District Court Upholds Voting Rights Act

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 3:00 PM PDT

The US District Court for the District of Columbia has thrown out a challenge to the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs in the case—a coalition of conservative legal groups from Shelby County, Alabama—argued that the VRA is unconstitutional because it has outlived its purpose of guaranteeing minorities the right to vote. According to Section Five of the law, which was extended by Congress in 2006, nine (mostly southern) states must pre-clear changes to their electoral procedures with the Department of Justice. Shelby County argued that the pre-clearance requirement exceeds Congress' enforcement authority and violates the Tenth Amendment.

But Judge John Bates, the George W. Bush appointee who dismissed the case on Wednesday, says otherwise. "Bearing in mind both the historical context and the extensive evidence of recent voting discrimination reflected in that virtually unprecedented legislative record," Bates' opinion reads, "the Court concludes that 'current needs'—the modern existence of intentional racial discrimination in voting—do, in fact, justify Congress's 2006 reauthorization of the preclearance requirement imposed on covered jurisdictions by Section 5."

Election law Expert Rick Hasen makes an important point: If this case comes before the Supreme Court, Bates' opinion stands a fighting chance of winning over swing justice Anthony Kennedy. That's not just because of Bates' solid conservative bonafides. It's also because the opinion is pretty well-written:

[The opinion] also applies a tough standard of review ("congruence and proportionality" rather than "rationality"), an issue on which the…court [has previously] hedged, and still held the law met the tougher standard for demonstrating appropriate congressional power. . . .

Judge Bates seemed to do a very good job dealing with both the current evidence of discrimination in the record (from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, as he says) as well as the "Bull Connor is Dead" problem. Many readers will walk away from the opinion thinking that if section 5 disappeared, discrimination based upon race in voting would reappear and grow in covered jurisdictions. (He does a very good job as well connecting private acts of racially polarized voting to specific state action.)

But Hasen also suggests the opinion doesn’t adequately differentiate between the sort of voter discrimination you might see in a state that must pre-clear under Section 5 and another state that isn't subject to the law. In other words, Hasen thinks Bates' argument is a little weak when it comes to fully explaining how conditions in the two kinds of states differ. That could be a source of considerable contention if this case—one of several pending cases challenging Section 5—comes before the Supreme Court.

Threatening the Fed

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 1:13 PM PDT

Did the Republican leadership do anything wrong by sending Ben Bernanke an ominous letter warning him not to intervene in the economy? Atrios thinks not:

I don't agree with the substance, but I don't think there's anything wrong with Republicans sending the Fed a sternly worded letter. If you believe that central bank independence is important, then you don't want the president being able to boss the Fed chairman around and similarly you wouldn't want Congress trying to goad the Fed into one action or another through legislation. But there's nothing wrong with policymakers expressing their opinions about what the Fed is doing.

But there are opinions and then there are opinions. The Economist thinks this week's GOP assault is different in several ways from ones in the past:

One is that politicians, especially those from Texas, have historically wanted easier policy from the Fed....The second difference is that past critics had a point: Mr Volcker’s tight monetary policy did tank the economy. This time, the hysteria over inflation has no obvious factual basis....Third, and most important, historically the Fed’s antagonists came from the fringes of their (usually Democratic) party. Now Republican leaders and presidential candidates are flouting the idea of central-bank independence. That has troubling implications.

On reflection, I think I probably overreacted last night. I'm not as sanguine about the concerted Republican attack on the Fed as Atrios is, partly because it now has the flavor of official threats from the Republican leadership and partly because it's so obviously aimed at trying to prevent any kind of effort to improve the economy. That's pretty unprecedented and pretty indefensible.

But even granting that, Atrios is right: if politicians have opinions about monetary policy, there's no reason they shouldn't spout them. It's when things go beyond mere spouting that they can get dangerous. On that score, the Republican letter may be defensible, but it's still not something to be shrugged off as just politics as usual. Boehner & Co. show every sign of wanting to push the envelope much harder than before on this.

Pakistan: bin Laden Bodyguard Back On the Street

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 12:45 PM PDT
Osama bin Laden escorted by the Black Guard.

Pakistan, being helpful:

Pakistan has freed a senior al Qaeda commander who served as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, according to a report from the region.

Dr. Amin al Haq, who served as the security coordinator of Osama bin Laden's Black Guard, was recently released by Pakistani authorities, according to a report in the Afghan Islamic Press, a jihadist news organization based in Peshawar. Al Haq was released from Pakistani custody several weeks ago, his family members told the Afghan Islamic Press. According to the report, Pakistani officials released him as his connections to al Qaeda "could not be proved," and he is also "not in good health."

On al Haq's apparently unproveable connection to Al Qaeda, American intelligence would beg to differ. Haq, a physician, was reportedly detained in Lahore by the ISI back in December 2008. He was a member of the Hizb-i Islami Khalis (HIK), one of the key mujahadeen groups that defeated the Soviets during the 1980s. HIK also helped bring bin Laden to Afghanistan after he was ejected from Sudan in 1996. And Haq himself reportedly accompanied bin Laden in his escape from Tora Bora in 2001.

Let's face it: Pakistan's national security bureaucracy has had a pretty rough year, with its intelligence service and military still reeling from the ridicule they've endured (and invited) since the bin Laden raid. Freeing a terrorist is, frankly, unsurprising behavior for such a partner.

But putting bin Laden's bodyguard back on the streets? That takes balls. And, like most things the Pakistani government does—like throwing CIA operatives out following the Raymond Davis affair—it's intended to send yet another petty, potentially deadly message to the US, just one more in a long, pointless list: You can fight your wars here, but don't expect us to be happy about it.

USCIS Reaches 10,000 U-Visa Limit

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 12:27 PM PDT

Last week I wrote about Rep. Lamar Smith's HALT Act, which would limit the use of the deferred action in immigration cases, thus forcing the Obama administration to deport undocumented victims of domestic violence. A House staffer defending the bill insisted that domestic violence victims would be unaffected since the bill didn't limit U-visas, the special visas available to undocumented crime victims who cooperate with the authorities. According to the staffer, reaching the 10,000 U-visa cap was a "hypothetical" situation no one should worry about.

On Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that the 10,000 U Visa cap had been reached: 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), marking a significant milestone in its efforts to provide relief to victims of crimes, has for the second straight year approved 10,000 petitions for U nonimmigrant status, also referred to as the U-visa.

On an annual basis, 10,000 U-visas are set aside for victims of crime who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to help law enforcement authorities investigate or prosecute crime.

You read that right—far from being a "hypothetical," this is the second year in a row that the U-visa cap has been reached. Unauthorized immigrants who are victims of domestic violence can nevertheless stay in the country if their case is compelling, and many will, thanks to the administration's authority to use deferred action to exercise discretion in deportations. If the HALT Act were in force, those applying for relief now that the cap has been reached would be out of luck. 

There's no minimizing the very real human consequences of Obama deporting more than a million undocumented immigrants, most of whom have no criminal record. But the president's approach amounts to a humane alternative to what Congressional Republicans would do if they could. 

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What Exactly Is the Buffett Rule?

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:30 AM PDT

Megan McArdle is, unsurprisingly, less enthusiastic about the "Buffett Rule" than I am. But I admit that she brings up a good point: what exactly is the Buffett Rule? Generally speaking, it's the idea that millionaires shouldn't be able to use loopholes and avoidance strategies to end up paying lower tax rates than middle-class families. This suggests something like what the Alternative Minimum Tax used to be: a minimum tax rate that kicks in for high earners if their net tax rate falls below a certain percentage of their gross income.

But that doesn't appear to be what President Obama is proposing. Rather, here's what his economic plan says:

To begin the national conversation about tax reform, the President is offering a detailed set of specific tax loophole closers and measures to broaden the tax base that, together with the expiration of the high-income tax cuts, would be more than sufficient to hit the $1.5 trillion target for tax reform and cut inefficient expenditures as well as move the tax system closer to observing the Buffett Rule. These measures include: cutting tax preferences for high-income households; eliminating special tax breaks for oil and gas companies; closing the carried interest loophole for investment fund managers; and eliminating benefits for those who buy corporate jets.

OK then. The idea isn't to set up some kind of firm tax cutoff, it's to move the tax system "closer" to observing the Buffett Rule. That may be a little less gratifying than a flat number, but it actually makes things easier to judge. In essence, Obama wants to go back to the rules of the pre-Bush era plus two other things: cap itemized deductions at 28% for high earners and abolish the carried interest loophole.

Unfortunately, there's one thing missing here: as part of the rollback of the Bush tax cuts, does Obama also want to roll back the cuts to the capital gains tax rate? The plan doesn't say so, so I assume the answer is no. (There would be no point in eliminating the carried-interest rule, for example, if capital gains rates were the same as rates on ordinary income.)

So I'm not sure what to make of this. These changes would, indeed, move the tax code "closer" to observing the Buffett Rule, but not much closer. It's the low capital gains rate that really makes the difference at high income levels. Obama's plan would reduce the number of high earners who pay very low rates, but it probably wouldn't reduce it very much.

On the other hand, because this isn't some kind of brand new proposal, it is easier to decide if you like it. I've long been in favor of returning to Clinton-era rates on high earners, and I've long been in favor of eliminating the carried interest rule — though I'd probably eliminate it for everyone, not just Wall Street types. The value of capping deductions is a little less clear, but probably OK. (Though I'm open to contrary arguments.) Overall, then, I'm in favor of it.

Anyway, it appears that we're not going to get the Buffett Rule. We're going to get some Buffett-esque Guidelines. Sort of. But at least it's a good start.

Ohio Could Become Most Anti-Choice State Yet

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:20 AM PDT

Yesterday, hundreds of people rallied at the Columbus, Ohio, statehouse in support of the so-called "Heartbeat Bill," the pending legislation that could crown Ohio as home of the strictest abortion law in the country. The law would, except in cases of extreme medical emergency, make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, i.e., as early as six weeks after conception (i.e., probably before you've realized you're pregnant). It's so strict that even Ohio Right to Life isn't supporting it, saying there's no way it's going to hold up in court, because it's totally unconstitutional.

But the bill has already passed the House; now it's up to the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 2-to-1. During the House hearing, proponents brought in two young pregnant women and gave them live ultrasounds in front of the committee. One fetus's heartbeats rang out loud and clear for the benefit of the audience. The other's was hard to make out. When I interviewed Democratic State Rep. Kathleen Clyde in June, she quipped, "I guess that fetus couldn't testify that day."

It's been a rough couple months for choice in Ohio. As we reported in June, the new budget, which passed this summer, contained a provision to keep "unincorporated (read: mostly rural) counties from covering abortion in their employee insurance plans" except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the woman's life. "Another bans publicly funded hospitals from performing the procedure." According to Ohio NARAL's Kellie Copeland, that affected "pretty much all the public hospitals in the state." Republican lawmakers said the measures keep taxpayer dollars from going toward abortions. Copeland says they didn't, since taxpayer dollars were already banned from going toward abortions in Ohio; procedures at public hospitals already had to be paid with private funds.

So also in attendance at the Columbus rally was Ohio NARAL, which showed up to rain on the anti-choice parade. "In a state like Ohio where the unemployment rate has continued to grow over the past three months to 9.1 percent, politicians who ran on ideas to improve the economy have shifted their focus to creating a divisive agenda that attacks a woman's right to choose," NARAL's Copeland said in a statement. NARAL says its supporters will stand outside the statehouse for a few hours every day the Senate is in session for the rest of the legislative year. If you live in Ohio and agree with them and are, like lots of people, unemployed, there's a fun afternoon activity for you!

FBI: Okay, Fine, We'll Do Something About That Anti-Muslim Training

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:45 AM PDT

Following the outcry from U.S. Senators and Muslim groups over revelations that the FBI has utilized anti-Muslim materials in counterterrorism training courses, the Bureau has announced it will be conducting a "a comprehensive review of all training and reference materials that relate in any way to religion or culture." A series of stories by Spencer Ackerman at Wired showed that training material portraying Muslims as inherently violent and radical were used by the Bureau. 

The FBI insisted last week that the training in question, which had been offered in March of this year, had been discontinued "because it was inconsistent with FBI standards on this topic." But on Tuesday Ackerman reported that the FBI Official who had offered the training, William Gawthrop, spoke at an FBI-sponsored event where he declared that individual terrorist groups like al Qaeda were "irrelevant" and that "We waste a lot of analytic effort talking about the type of weapon, the timing, the tactics. All of that is irrelevant … if you have an Islamic motivation for actions." Gawthrop instead explained that Islam itself was the problem, utilizing a Star Wars metaphor:

"If you remember Star Wars, that ventilation shaft that goes down to into the depths of the Death Star, they shot a torpedo down there. That’s a critical vulnerability," Gawthrop told his audience. Then he waved a laser pointer at his projected PowerPoint slide, calling attention to the words "Holy Texts" and "Clerics."

"We should be looking at, should be aiming at, these," Gawthrop said.

The FBI issued this statement on Wednesday:

The FBI is currently conducting a comprehensive review of all training and reference materials that relate in any way to religion or culture. Additionally, the FBI will consult with outside experts on the development and use of training materials to best ensure the highest level of quality for new agent training, continuing education for all employees, and any FBI-affiliated training. All training will be consistent with FBI core values, the highest professional standards, and adherence to the Constitution.

If this had been done earlier, the FBI might have avoided some embarrassment. The stakes, of course, are much higher than that. The FBI has vast authority to conduct domestic surveillance, and the kind of Islamophobic cultural illiteracy represented by Gawthrop's training makes it more difficult to locate and identify actual terrorists. It also damages the FBI's ability to form relationships with the American Muslim community, relationships FBI Director Robert Mueller himself has identified as crucial to stopping attacks before they happen. 

Chart of the Day: Patent Quality Declining

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:40 AM PDT

Via Brad Plumer, a new OECD report concludes that the rising number of patents over the past decade is a bit of a mirage:

The quality of patent filings has fallen dramatically over the past two decades. The rush to protect even minor improvements in products or services is overburdening patent offices. This slows the time to market for true innovations and reduces the potential for breakthrough inventions, according to a new OECD report....Patents from inventors in the United States, Germany and Japan are the most highly cited, which suggests they are true innovations being used by many firms in their products to generate further innovations.

Brad points out that patent trolling has increased in the United States over the same time period. So we appear to be dominating the world at both ends of the spectrum: we have the best patents and the worst ones. On average, though, even ours have getting noticeably worse over the past decade. I blame it on software patents.