Kevin Drum

Prop 19 and the Feds

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 10:17 AM EDT

The LA Times came out editorially today against Proposition 19, an initiative on the California ballot in November that would legalize marijuana cultivation and use. They don't like the "chaos" that would ensue from every city having the ability to set its own regulations, and suggest that some kind of statewide framework should have been included. But even if it did, they say, Prop 19 would still have a fatal flaw:

Californians cannot legalize marijuana. Regardless of how the vote goes on Nov. 2, under federal law marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, whose use for any reason is proscribed by Congress. Sure, California could go it alone, but that would set up an inevitable conflict with the federal government that might not end well for the state. That experiment has been tried with medical marijuana, and the outcome has not inspired confidence. Up and down the state, an untold number of residents have faced federal prosecution for actions that were allowed under California law.

This is (one of) Mark Kleiman's beefs with Prop 19 too, but oddly enough, I find this to be one of the strongest reasons to vote for Prop 19. Frankly, I think a showdown with the federal government might be long overdue, and contra the Times, I'd say our experiment with medical marijuana, on balance, has been a good thing. (It hasn't worked out very well in Los Angeles, which might be influencing the Times here, but that's largely because LA politicians are morons who refused to draft regulations years ago when they should have.) But even if there have been abuses of the medical cannabis industry, California's deregulation has paved the way for other states to do the same; it's raised awareness (and probably tolerance for) marijuana use nationwide; and it's proven that deregulation can work if local authorities handle it properly. Think Oakland, not LA. On the whole, I think it's been a net positive.

Anyway, a showdown with the feds might not turn out well, but then again, it might produce some useful fireworks. Sometimes that's what it takes to make progress.

(So am I going to vote for Prop 19? I'm tempted. But my presumption for voting No on all propositions is pretty strong, and Prop 19 really does have some drawbacks that are probably not suitable for enshinement for all time in the state constitution. So probably not.)

UPDATE: Oops, sorry. It's not a constitutional amendment, it's an initiative statute. That means it could be overturned as unconstitutional by a court, which is unlikely, but in terms of how easily it can be modified there's not much difference between the two.

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The Senate Gold Mine

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 9:32 AM EDT

A trio of researchers at CEP have done a fascinating little study of lobbyist revenue. Their conclusion:

Our main finding is that lobbyists connected to US Senators suffer an average 24% drop in generated revenue when their previous employer leaves the Senate. The decrease in revenue is out of line with pre-existing trends, it is discontinuous around the period in which the connected Senator exits Congress and it persists in the long-term....Measured in terms of median revenues per ex-staffer turned lobbyist, this estimate indicates that the exit of a Senator leads to approximately a $177,000 per year fall in revenues for each affiliated lobbyist.

So: starting around 2000, the value of ex-congressional staffers started to rise much more quickly than non-connected lobbyists. And when the connected lobbyists' patrons left Congress, either because they retired or lost reelection? Boom. Their revenue drops like a rock. This isn't really surprising, I suppose, but it's interesting to see a number put to it.

And by the way, this is only true for senators.  For lobbyists connected to House members leaving office, the loss is "a weakly statistically significant 10% of generated revenue." Moral of the story: if you want to cash in, work for a senator.

Citizens United After Eight Months

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Last January, in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were free to spend unlimited sums to support or oppose candidates for office. Eight months later, how's that working out? Michael Luo and Stephanie Strom report in the New York Times:

Interviews with a half-dozen campaign finance lawyers yielded an anecdotal portrait of corporate political spending since the Citizens United decision. They agreed that most prominent, publicly traded companies are staying on the sidelines.

But other companies, mostly privately held, and often small to medium size, are jumping in, mainly on the Republican side. Almost all of them are doing so through 501(c) organizations, as opposed to directly sponsoring advertisements themselves, the lawyers said.

"I can tell you from personal experience, the money’s flowing," said Michael E. Toner, a former Republican FEC commissioner, now in private practice at the firm Bryan Cave.

The reason the Times' paints only an "anecdotal portrait" and Toner relies on his "personal experience" is that this new corporate money is increasingly being funneled through 501(c)(4) groups that aren't required to disclose who their donors are. You can see the results at the Washington Post's running tally of campaign spending by interest groups: seven of the top ten spenders are Republican organizations, and they're outspending Democrats by nearly two to one, much of it on ads specifically targeted against Democratic House and Senate candidates.

You think that's not fueled by an increase in corporate donations? Then I've got a bridge to sell you. Take number 7 on the list, a group called the 60 Plus Association. Its spending has skyrocketed to nearly $6 million so far this year, and when Dave Weigel asked them where this tidal wave of new cash was coming from, they declined to say. But that kind of money doesn't come from five-dollar donations from tea partiers. It comes from deep pockets — including, as Suzy Khimm reports, $400,000 from American Financial Group to Karl Rove's new campaign spending group, American Crossroads, a contribution that wouldn't have been possible before the Citizens United decision.

And all that money is showing up on the airwaves. Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that an internal Democratic spreadsheet has tallied up the spending so far, and the story is grim: as of this week, pro-Republican organizations had paid for a total of $23.6 million worth of ads compared to $4.8 million for Democratic-aligned groups. And it's only going to get worse: Over the next four weeks, GOP groups have $9.4 million worth of TV ads reserved across 40 districts compared to $1.3 million in five districts for Democratic groups.

And what about liberal groups? Even in the best of times they have a hard time competing with corporate PAC money, but this year is even tougher. At the same time that Citizens United has opened the spigot even wider for Republicans, it's run dry for Democrats. While Karl Rove and his buddies are hoovering up over $50 million for American Crossroads, liberal fundraisers are struggling with a base that's dispirited and unhappy over failures on climate change and DADT and shortcomings on healthcare reform. Jim Jordan, who has started up a new group called Commonsense Ten that's airing ads in Senate races, explains things crisply: "The progressive donor base has stopped writing checks," he says.

And the future? Probably worse. Big publicly traded companies may still be staying on the sidelines this year to see how things shake out, but that's not likely to last. As it becomes clear that corporate spending is here to stay, and efforts to force disclosure of corporate donations fail — such as the DISCLOSE Act currently before Congress — they'll start jumping in too.

Which means that liberals had better get out of their funk and start supporting liberal causes and liberal candidates. Because it's a sure bet that all those corporations newly empowered by Citizens United won't be.

Harry and Nancy and the Tax Cuts

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 10:03 PM EDT

Are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a couple of fainthearted cowards for refusing to hold a vote on middle-class tax cuts today? That's the blogo-conventional wisdom at the moment, but pushback comes from the last guy I'd expect it from: Jonathan Zasloff. He explains here.

The Blue Dogs, on the other hand, are muttonheads regardless.

(Speaking of which, can anyone explain the Blue Dogs to me? They didn't want to be put in the position of voting for some tax cuts and against others, even tax cuts for the rich. Obviously these guys know their districts better than I do, and I get that in certain places this might be the smart move. Still, it's hard to believe that any district even remotely willing to elect a Democrat in the first place would punish you for not cutting taxes on the rich. What am I missing here?)

Unemployment Forever

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

Is our high unemployment problem mostly structural — lots of people have been laid off in a few specific industries and can't be rehired until they've been trained for others — or mostly cyclical — people just aren't buying stuff so companies everywhere aren't hiring new workers? A bit of both, probably, but the evidence suggests pretty strongly that it's mostly cyclical. If it were structural, some industries would have high unemployment and others would have low unemployment, but in fact unemployment is spread pretty evenly around the whole economy. People are cutting back on everything and every sector is suffering.

This is good news, in a sense, since cyclical unemployment is easier to deal with. Unfortunately, we're not dealing with it, and Brad DeLong sounds the alarm:

The overwhelmingly likely possibility is that at the moment little of our unemployment is "structural," but that if demand is not boosted to reduce cyclical unemployment that it will turn into structural unemployment and then be with us for a decade or more. The fact that cyclical unemployment turns into structural unemployment is a possibility that adds immense urgency and power to the case for more demand stimulus right now.

That's obviously not going to happen, since rich people don't really object much to high unemployment (it helps keep wages down, after all) and rich people hold the whip hand over Congress. So that leaves the Fed. Unfortunately, rich people hold the whip hand over them too, so they're not doing anything either. Basically, all of us non-rich folks are screwed. But I'll bet the tea party's billionaire funders are all pretty happy.

Living in Jack Bauer's World

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 7:17 PM EDT

A couple of months ago I linked to a Stewart Baker post about a new computer virus. This wasn't your ordinary Windows trojan or worm, it was an extremely sophisticated piece of malware targeted specifically at SCADA systems — industrial control systems made by Siemens that are used in chemical plants and electric power plants and transmission systems worldwide.

Well, it now has a name — Stuxnet — and analysts know a lot more about it. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, a German cyber-security researcher named Ralph Langner has discovered that it's not aimed at SCADA systems in general. Rather, it has a built in "fingerprinting" capability and is aimed at one specific SCADA system:

Since reverse engineering chunks of Stuxnet's massive code, senior US cyber security experts confirm what Mr. Langner, the German researcher, told the Monitor: Stuxnet is essentially a precision, military-grade cyber missile deployed early last year to seek out and destroy one real-world target of high importance — a target still unknown.

"Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an industrial process in the physical world," says Langner, who last week became the first to publicly detail Stuxnet's destructive purpose and its authors' malicious intent. "This is not about espionage, as some have said. This is a 100 percent sabotage attack."

....Once Stuxnet identifies the critical function running on a programmable logic controller, or PLC, made by Siemens, the giant industrial controls company, the malware takes control. One of the last codes Stuxnet sends is an enigmatic “DEADF007.” Then the fireworks begin, although the precise function being overridden is not known, Langner says. It may be that the maximum safety setting for RPMs on a turbine is overridden, or that lubrication is shut off, or some other vital function shut down. Whatever it is, Stuxnet overrides it, Langner’s analysis shows.

"After the original code [on the PLC] is no longer executed, we can expect that something will blow up soon," Langner writes in his analysis. "Something big."

....A geographical distribution of computers hit by Stuxnet, which Microsoft produced in July, found Iran to be the apparent epicenter of the Stuxnet infections. That suggests that any enemy of Iran with advanced cyber war capability might be involved, Langner says. The US is acknowledged to have that ability, and Israel is also reported to have a formidable offensive cyber-war-fighting capability.

Could Stuxnet's target be Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, a facility much of the world condemns as a nuclear weapons threat? Langner is quick to note that his views on Stuxnet's target is speculation based on suggestive threads he has seen in the media. Still, he suspects that the Bushehr plant may already have been wrecked by Stuxnet. Bushehr's expected startup in late August has been delayed, he notes, for unknown reasons.

On the bright side, this strikes me as the kind of attack that can only work once. And if once it is, Bushehr seems like a worthy target. On the downside, however, this category of attack seems like it could have almost infinite possibilities. It suddenly makes all those implausible plot lines on 24 seems terrifyingly plausible after all.

(Via Stewart Baker, of course.)

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Big Spenders

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

Over at the New Republic, Alexander Hart catches Republicans playing games with charts to try and make Democratic budgets look bigger than they really are. So he redraws the chart, and then Ezra Klein redraws it again.

Which is fine, but I think everyone is missing the real dishonesty of the chart: it cleverly has a single bar each for Clinton, Bush, and Obama showing only their "average spending" as a percent of GDP. But that average covers a multitude of sins, so a proper chart is below. Can you tell which of these administrations is not like the other?

The Clinton average is about 20% of GDP, but that represents a decline from 22% to 18%. The Bush average is also about 20% of GDP, but that represents an increase from 18% to 22%. And Obama's average is higher than the other two, but that represents a big slug of stimulus spending in response to the Bush recession followed by — you guessed it — a decline. Even his higher ending number is mostly due to increased interest expense, not to wildly higher primary spending.

Anyway, the Republican story is that this time they really really mean it. They really will cut spending, even though they've never done it in the past. You can decide for yourself if you believe them this time around.

Sarah Palin's Common Sense Kickbacks

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

The Washington Times reports that the Republican National Committee has paid off a quarter million dollars of Sarah Palin's legal fees. RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen explains:

"That was payment for services she was providing, including a couple speeches, a couple fundraising letters and a telephone call," Mr. Pullen said. "There was not a contract so far as I know. It was verbal."

Former RNC Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf said he could not recall a similar arrangement for those helping the party build its financial base during his tenure. "Wow. I never paid anyone money to make speeches and sign direct-mail appeals," Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

Presumably Palin doesn't want anyone to say that she's doing fundraising gigs for her own benefit (she's just a suburban hockey mom fighting to take back America, after all), so instead she worked a deal with the RNC where she'd do fundraising for the party but have part of it kicked back to pay her personal bills. Politics as usual, I guess. But it still baffles me. Palin reportedly has earned upwards of $10 million over the past year and has loads of future earning potential too. So why not just pay the $600,000 legal bill herself and be done with it? It's chump change for someone as rich as she is.

Empty Pledges

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

Does pundit law require me to comment on the Republicans' "Pledge To America" that was released today? I'm not sure. And it's a pretty tedious bunch of boilerplate. So I'll limit myself to one thing: the section on reducing spending. It has ten provisions. Here's how I score them:

  • Four of them (#5, 7, 9, 10) are just blather.
  • One of them (#3) is quite plainly not a promise the GOP can or will keep.
  • Two of them (#4, 6) are trivial.

So that leaves #1, 2, and 8. Here they are:

  • Act Immediately to Reduce Spending: There is no reason to wait to reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending. Congress should move immediately to cancel unspent “stimulus” funds, and block any attempts to extend the timeline for spending “stimulus” funds. Throwing more money at a stimulus plan that is not working only wastes taxpayer money and puts us further in debt.

  • Cut Government Spending to Pre-Stimulus, Pre-Bailout Levels: With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.

  • Impose a Net Federal Hiring Freeze of Non-Security Employees: Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy and should not be crowded out by unchecked government growth. We will impose a net hiring freeze on non-security federal employees and ensure that the public sector no longer grows at the expense of the private sector.

Canceling unspent stimulus dollars is just stupid. There's not all that much left and it would mean leaving lots of programs half finished. But whatever.

The real meat is in the other two. And as usual, Republicans refuse to call out actual programs they want to cut. Everyone knows there won't be an across-the-board anything, not spending cuts and not hiring freezes. There will only be cuts in actual, named programs. But what? The FBI? Highway construction? Food stamps? Ag subsidies? Corporate welfare? NASA? NOAA? Education spending? The NIH and CDC?

What's it going to be, guys? If you're afraid to name any actual programs now, why should anyone believe you're suddenly going to develop the guts to stand up to your own supporters and name them once you're in office?

For more on the general vacuousness of this document, see David Corn, Ezra Klein, and Jonathan Bernstein.

Who Bends the Rules Better?

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

Having just criticized Democrats for being feckless cowards, now I'll take the other side of the argument. Why? Just to be annoying, I guess. Here is Matt Yglesias commenting on the fact that Paul Ryan disparaged reconciliation when it was used to pass healthcare reform but approves of it wholeheartedly when it's used to repeal healthcare reform:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think this is a really genuinely and non-ironically praiseworthy attribute of the Republican congressional caucus that makes congressional Democrats look really, really bad....Republicans are determined to follow the actual laws and rules. When in the minority, they don’t rebel. They don’t murder their political opponents, they don’t organize coups d’état. What they do is they try to win legislative battles through all the tools at their disposal. And when in the majority they . . . do the same thing. They believe, strongly, that letting wealthy businessmen get what they want is good for America, and they go about doing that with seriousness of purpose. Many Democrats, by contrast, seem to believe that their highest responsibility is to make themselves look good, to preen for the cameras, or to maximize their own personal authority.

OK, but look: Democrats did use all the tools at their disposal to pass healthcare reform. They hauled out reconciliation and used it in a very unusual way to overcome Senate rules and pass the final bill. And there's more. Obama has made increasing numbers of recess appointments. He used TARP to rescue GM and Chrysler even though that was pretty plainly not what TARP was intended for. Dems passed PAYGO rules and then declared anything that violated it "emergency spending." Likewise, they denounced closed rules when they were out of power but used them routinely when they took over the House. Just last week Obama appointed Elizabeth Warren as a White House special advisor to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a way of evading the normal rules for Senate confirmation.

Are Republicans even more ruthless and hypocritical about procedural hurdles than Democrats? Probably. Is this stuff praiseworthy or just part of the rough-and-tumble of politics? I'm not sure, though I can say that it mostly doesn't bother me a whole lot. Either way, though, even if Nancy Pelosi doesn't quite measure up to Tom DeLay in this department, Dems aren't exactly babes in the woods when it comes to manipulating the system.