2011 - %3, September

25 Giant Corporations That Paid Their CEOs More Than They Paid Uncle Sam

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

It might make sense for a small business to pay its top brass more than it doles out to Uncle Sam in taxes, but what if that company has tens of thousands of employees and billions of dollars in profits? Well, this is America folks. What follows is a list of 25 mega corporations that paid one guy—their CEO—more money than what they spent on their entire federal tax bills last year. The same companies averaged $1.9 billion each in profits—money that was earned, in many cases, by cutting thousands of American jobs.

Source: Institute for Policy StudiesSource: Institute for Policy Studies

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The Republican War on (Certain Kinds Of) Voting

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 1:53 PM EDT

I almost forgot about this, but Ari Berman has a terrific piece in Rolling Stone this week about one of my pet topics: the relentless Republican drive to pass laws designed to reduce voting rates among traditional Democratic constituencies:

All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states — Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia — cut short their early voting periods.

Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures — Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic — including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.

Here's my favorite passage:

After the recount debacle in Florida in 2000, allowing voters to cast their ballots early emerged as a popular bipartisan reform. Early voting not only meant shorter lines on Election Day, it has helped boost turnout in a number of states — the true measure of a successful democracy. "I think it's great," Jeb Bush said in 2004....But Republican support for early voting vanished after Obama utilized it as a key part of his strategy in 2008.

....That may explain why both Florida and Ohio — which now have conservative Republican governors — have dramatically curtailed early voting for 2012. Next year, early voting will be cut from 14 to eight days in Florida and from 35 to 11 days in Ohio, with limited hours on weekends. In addition, both states banned voting on the Sunday before the election — a day when black churches historically mobilize their constituents.

If this weren't so loathsome, you'd almost have to admire it. I mean, would it ever even occur to you to specifically ban voting on the Sunday before election? It wouldn't to me. But that's because I don't have quite the reptilian mind it takes to figure out that this might affect black churches disproportionately compared to white churches, and therefore provide a small advantage for Republicans.

But Republican strategy gurus have exactly that kind of mind. Thus we get laws like this one, plus many, many more designed for exactly the same purpose. Berman runs them all down for you, so read his whole piece. This is revolting far beyond anything we should accept as normal politics, and it's a disgrace that the Supreme Court allows it to continue.

Meme-Busting: Obama's Secret Plan to Win in 2012

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 12:43 PM EDT
"Don't tell anyone what I told you, okay?" According to two GOP congressmen, President Obama has a secret plan to steal the 2012 election.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) believes he's uncovered President Obama's secret plan to win next fall's presidential election: Grant citizenship to millions of undocumented residents with the expectation that they'll check his name at the ballot box come 2012. He's not alone; Rep. Louie Gohmert floated a similar conspiracy theory last week, telling Fox News that Obama would attempt to steal the election through some combination of massive voter fraud and blanket amnesty.

Here's what Coffman told Denver's Caplis & Silverman radio show last month:

There's another piece of this puzzle. What the Administration is doing, is taking a very aggressive move in the people that have illegal status and moving them through citizenship and waving all the fees and waving anything they can to get the process done in time for 2012. That's something I would love to see the media focus on.

Mercy! Expect to hear a lot more talk like this over the next 12 months, as right-wing media outlets shift into overdrive in the run-up to the election. The same thing transpired with ACORN in 2008 when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously declared that we are "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." (We're still here.)

Our Eternal Senate

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 12:23 PM EDT

While I was writing the previous post, I happened to look up the process for amending the Constitution, and I noticed something I hadn't registered before. Here's Article V:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, [blah blah blah] Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Huh. If that says what I think it says, it means the Senate in its current form is eternal. Not even a constitutional amendment can eliminate it or reform it unless literally every state agrees. Since 1808 has long since come and gone, that means this is the only absolutely immutable part of our national machinery, the one and only thing that can never be touched. Sort of an odd choice to be given such lofty distinction, no?

California Health Insurance Regulation Bill Stalls

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

As I reported on Wednesday, the California state legislature have been considering a bill, AB 52, that would give state regulators the power to reduce or even veto health insurance premium increases. On Thursday, though, the state Senate voted to table the bill, which passed the state Assembly in June but faced a decided lack of enthusiasm among upper-chamber legislators.

The bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, conceded defeat—for the time being, at least: "Despite an outpouring of strong support from small business, working families and consumers throughout (California), the bill has hit a temporary roadblock in the Senate," Feuer said in a statement released to reporters.

A spokeswoman for Feuer said he will resume work on the bill next year. But the opposition to AB 52 is well-financed and doesn't seem likely to allow the measure to rise from the dead. The list of interest groups opposing AB 52 is long, featuring groups like the California Association of Health Plans and the California Medical Association. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which negotiates health and retirement benefits for over 1.6 million Californians, also opposes the bill, fearing that it would impinge upon its authority to set HMO plan rates.

The problem of massive insurance rate increases is particularly acute in California. After the passage of federal health care reform, the Golden State's largest insurer raised rates by 16% over the objections of state regulators. And last year, the California-based non-profit provider Blue Shield proposed—but later retracted—a 39% hike for some individual policies. To top it off, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council ranked California as the twelfth most-expensive state in terms of health care costs in 2011. The key takeaway? California continues to be a great target for health care reformers.

Oddly enough, AB 52 died the same day that a key piece of federal health care reform requiring regulators to review double-digit premium hikes went into effect. Is the federal rule a win for health insurance policyholders? Not quite: the federal bill doesn't give state regulators the power to reject increases they deem "unreasonable," as AB 52 would have. So it remains up to the states to wield rate-setting authority on their own. But even those with the authority to block increases don’t necessarily wield it, and states without that power sometimes end up negotiating premium reductions with insurers through informal channels.

Is there any hope for increased regulation of insurance giants in California? The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff thinks so. Call it The Great Man Theory of Health Insurance Regulation:

What the state does have: an incredibly aggressive insurance commissioner named Dave Jones, who has managed to convince nearly every major carrier in the state to drop its premium increases. He’s done this mostly with publicity blitzes: It doesn’t take a whole lot for a rate increase to rile up the public with a premium increase.

The rate-review regulation…lays down a lot of foundation for an insurance regulator who wants to be aggressive, requiring the review and publicizing of larger rate increases. States have also received grants to increase capacity to review rate increases. It’s now mostly up to regulators how they want to use these new tools.

Federal health care reform sought comprehensive change. But it also set the stage for state advocates to implement further incremental changes on top of the new federal structure. The point being: it's not entirely deluded to think that AB 52 and bills like it will get another chance, so long as lawmakers and advocates keep up the pressure.

Term Limits for the Supreme Court

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 12:12 PM EDT

Rick Perry thinks Supreme Court justices should serve 18-year terms instead of having lifetime appointments. Jon Chait says this is a rare example of a smart Perry policy:

The current system of lifetime tenure creates real problems. Huge policy swings hinge on the simple health and longevity of Supreme Court justices. This results in very old justices clinging to their seats until a sufficiently friendly president can take office. It also gives presidents an incentive to nominate the youngest possible justice who can be confirmed, as opposed to the most qualified possible justice. And eliminating some element of the sheer randomness by which each party gets to appoint justices would tend to reduce the chances of the court swinging too far one way or another from the mainstream of legal thought.

It's hard to imagine the incentive structure for any president to propose such a reform — why volunteer to the the first president whose judicial nominees don't get lifetime tenure? But it is slightly reassuring to see glimmers of sense in Perry's platform.

Why be the first president to volunteer for this? That would depend on how it was implemented. It would require a constitutional amendment, and I imagine a constitutional amendment could affect sitting justices. So a president might agree to this as long as the amendment limited the terms not just of new justices, but also of sitting justices, starting with the longest-serving ones. That could end up working out fairly favorably.

More to the point, though, the president wouldn't get a chance to volunteer in the first place. Presidents have no role in the constitutional amendment process. Still, the same logic applies to the president's party in Congress, so that's a nit. So who knows? Maybe it could be done with the proper amount of fiddling around the edges.

But this brings up another question: why is Perry in favor of this? Is it just part of the general movement conservative outrage over "activist judges"? Perry seems to believe that term limits would "restrict the unlimited power of the courts to rule over us with no accountability," but I don't really see that. It's equally hard to see how you'd conclude that this would be institutionally favorable toward either liberals or conservatives unless you're really, really sure that your side is going to control the White House more often than the other.

Meh. It's probably a mug's game to try and dig too deep into Perry's mind here. My guess is that "judges bad, term limits good" is about as far as he's considered things. Still, for the usual goo goo liberal reasons that Chait lists, I'd support him on this. Let's hear it for term limits on Supreme Court justices.

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WikiLeaks Gets Ready to Release Everything

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 10:56 AM EDT

WikiLeaks still hasn't published the full cache of diplomatic cables that it began releasing last year. So should they? The Guardian reports:

WikiLeaks is conducting an online poll of its Twitter followers to decide whether the whistleblowing site should publish in full its unredacted cache of US diplomatic cables.

Hmmm. A Twitter poll. I wonder how that's going to turn out?

WikiLeaks appeared likely to use the Twitter responses, which it said favoured disclosure at a ratio of 100 to one, to pave the way for imminent disclosure of the remaining material from its cable archive.

Consider me non-shocked. Anyway, if you read the whole story it turns out this is apparently all part of the ongoing war between Julian Assange and the Guardian. One way or another, though, it looks as if we're all going to have access to the entire cache of cables soon enough.

Meet Rick Perry's Favorite Lobbyist

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 10:07 AM EDT
Mike Toomey (left) and Rick Perry (right) have been friends since they entered the Texas House together in 1985.

In 2010, private corrections lobbyists gave Texas Governor Rick Perry $100,000 during his re-election campaign, and then Perry went on to push a series of proposals that would have privatized the prison health care system and neutered the commission tasked with oversight of the nation's second-largest inmate population—all in the name of austerity. That's the basic gist of my story today

But what's also noteworthy about the story is who it involves—specifically, Perry's former chief of staff Mike Toomey, who is now a lobbyist for the nation's largest private prison firm. He was also a lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the political juggernaut that has poured millions into Perry's campaigns and helped secure business-friendly tort reform in the state. Last month he started Make Us Great Again, a super PAC designed expressly to support the Governor's presidential run. Toomey was the lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Merck when Perry signed a controversial executive order mandating that adolescent girls receive a Merck vaccine against HPV. If you don't follow Texas politics, you probably don't know him, but he's had an outsized influence on Perry's rise.

I recommend reading Patricia Kilday Hart's profile of Toomey in Texas Monthly in 2003, back when Toomey was the Governor's chief of staff. Here's a snippet:

A common complaint heard around the Capitol is that Toomey "hasn't taken off his lobby hat"—meaning that as Perry's chief of staff, he continues to argue positions favorable to his former clients, especially [Texans for Lawsuit Reform]. Toomey was ready with his answer when I raised the point in our interview: "I have two responses to that. First of all, I didn't have any client that I didn't agree with philosophically about what they were doing. Just go through my client list. I don't have clients I disagree with." The second rebuttal was that he delegates issues on which he has lobbied previously to other staffers. As an example, he said he sent representatives of SBC Communications (Southwestern Bell) to an assistant, who could take the company's concerns directly to the governor, since Toomey himself had worked as a lobbyist for its competitor, AT&T...

Toomey's involvement on behalf of his former clients might become a major problem if he returns to lobbying for them, but Williamson says that is unlikely. He and other friends predict that Toomey will return to electoral politics, running for a statewide office like comptroller, or alternatively, go to work for a conservative advocacy foundation.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 1, 2011

Thu Sep. 1, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

US Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Russell uses his weapon's scope to secure an area during a bridge inspection in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2011. Russell is a platoon sergeant assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul's security force. US Air Force photo by by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.