Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
In 1995, while running for reelection, President Bill Clinton released a campaign ad in which the narrator declared, "Bill Clinton did something no president has ever been able to accomplish: He passed and signed a tough law to ban deadly assault weapons." Then Clinton himself appeared in the spot and boasted he had taken "deadly assault weapons off our streets." Clinton was referring to the assault weapons ban he had achieved as part of a massive anti-crime bill enacted the previous year. With this legislation, the last major gun control law produced by Washington, Clinton had scored a headline-making political victory, overcoming the fierce opposition of the formidable National Rifle Association. But he had racked up, at best, only a partial policy victory, for the ban was riddled with loopholes and did little to curtail the availability of semi-automatic weapons. Two decades later, as President Barack Obama initiates an effort to enact effective gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown massacre, the 1994 fight holds plenty of lessons for him and his allies.
President Obama visits Newtown for the Sandy Hook Elementary vigil.
At the memorial ceremony in Newtown on Sunday night, President Barack Obama declared that he would respond to the tragic shooting there with real policy action. This raised the expectation that he would take on the dicey matter of gun control. And at the White House this afternoon, he further fueled these expectations. The president announced the creation of an effort headed by Vice President Joe Biden. But, he noted, this would not be the typical "Washington commission" that takes months to produce a report that is pushed aside. Instead, Obama insisted, this Biden-led initiative would craft "real reforms right now" and cook up "concrete proposals" by the end of next month. Moreover, the president said, he would then push Congress to vote on these ideas soon. "I will be talking about these in my State of the Union," he said.
Obama suggested several steps he wants to see: some sort of ban on assault weapons, enhanced background checks for gun buyers, and an end to the gun-show loophole (which allows the purchases of firearms without such checks).
Obama, who has done little about gun violence since taking office, has committed himself to an issue he has heretofore avoided as president. Whilecampaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama backed permanently reinstating the assault weapon ban that had expired in 2004. And after he assumed office, his administration announced it would proceed on this front. But then Obama went silent. Nothing was done. The president was not willing to confront this hot and politically difficult topic.
Yet in the aftermath of the Newtown nightmare, Obama is not equivocating. "Words need to lead to action," he said today. He recited a list of Americans who have been killed by guns in the days since the Newtown shooting, noting that this group included several police officers and a four-year-old. He pointed out that gun violence claims the lives of 10,000 Americans every year and asserted this cannot be accepted as "routine."
"I will use all the powers of this office to aim to prevent more tragedies like this," Obama said. But, he added, ultimately, it "will take a wave of Americans" saying "enough."
With such remarks, Obama is making it clear: He has adopted combating gun violence as a priority. And he has now placed himself in the position where he will be judged on whether he gets anything done.
Gun Owners of America's executive director Larry Pratt on MSNBC's "Hardball"
The Washington green room is usually a fun place where Democrats, Republicans, journalists, legislators, executive branch officials, policy advocates, and politicos of various bents—occasionally adversaries—await television hits and chitchat politely among one another. The discourse can yield intriguing gossip, interesting tidbits, and, most important for a journalist, productive leads. It's a microcosm of official Washington. But on Monday, as I cooled my heels prior to appearing on Hardball, the green room at the DC studio for MSNBC was filled with tension. In one chair was Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, a group that's more die-hard on gun rights than the National Rifle Association. Standing next to him was David Chipman, of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In essence, the nation's emotionally fraught debate over guns was jammed into this tiny room.
If there is no fiscal crisis, can there be a fiscal cliff?
The current hullabaloo over tax cuts, spending cuts, entitlement programs, and the debt ceiling has yielded much fodder for policy-minded columnists, practically establishing a job creation program for budget-following wonks. Recently, there have been a rash of articles from this set advancing the essential point that raising the eligibility age for Medicare, a proposal that might be on the table (that is, if there is a table), would be awful policy because doing so would remove healthier seniors from the Medicare pool and place this older group into the non-Medicare pool and boost costs there. (Health care costs would presumably go up overall—and particularly for private employers who would have to carry these 65- and 66-year-olds on their policies.) Has this spate of policy op-edding influenced the negotiating positions? We don't know. The talks are all hush-hush. And this week, another policymeister, in one of the most consequential columns of the past fortnight, added another significant contention to the discourse: There is no fiscal crisis.
Bruce Bartlett, who was an economics official in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is a contributor to the New York Times' Economix blog, and in an important post a few days ago he delved into the Government Accountability Office's new estimates of the federal government’s long-term budget outlook. The bottom line: "The idea that we are facing a crisis is complete nonsense." Bartlett, by the way, considers himself a conservative, a reality-based conservative. He points out, per the GAO report:
[S]pending is not out of control. Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are rising gently as the baby-boom generation retires. All other spending, including that for the military and domestic discretionary programs, falls—with the notable exception of interest on the debt. Interest rises sharply as the deficit rises, principally because the G.A.O. assumes that revenue will not be permitted to rise above its historical average—as Republicans continually insist.
In other words, the inability to raise revenue to diminish deficits—and tackle rising interest payments—is the major problem.
Here it is in chart form, courtesy of the GAO:
Note the explosive growth in net interest. Using these numbers, Bartlett writes that the GOP's demand that Social Security and Medicare be cut immediately—say, by raising the age of eligibility for Medicare and changing the inflation adjustment formula for Social Security—is not in sync with the actual data:
To be sure, some restraint is needed in federal entitlement programs…Spending for Social Security, in particular, is very stable. Relatively modest changes, such as raising the taxable earnings base slightly, would be sufficient to put the program on a sound footing virtually forever.
Bartlett chides Republicans for droning on and on that domestic discretionary spending is responsible for bloated government. But, he points out, "such programs have already been cut sharply by the Budget Control Act of 2011." He adds, "That leaves interest on the debt as the principal driver of long-term spending and deficits." And if the Rs continue to resist raising revenues, he maintains, there will be higher spending for interest on the debt. (The interest line in that chart could even be much greater, if interest rates go up.)
Bartlett advocates letting all the George W. Bush tax cuts expire and all the automatic spending cuts kick in. He acknowledges that this might cause a short-term hit to the economy, but he argues that taming the deficits will lead to medium- and long-term growth. Whether that's the right policy solution or not—it does entail a difficult trade-off—it's at least based on data that reflects the real world.
His post, though, does make one thing clear: President Barack Obama (or anyone else) need not rush into a big deal at this moment. There is no imminent fiscal crisis regarding entitlements. The Republicans are merely hyping the matter to bolster their attempts to extract a ransom for either (a) extending the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent, or (b) acceding to a hike in the debt ceiling, which will soon reach its latest limit, or both. The sky is not falling. It is not on fire. And the cliff may not be that frightening.
The Sunlight Foundation, a group that pushes for more transparent politics and policymaking, on Friday reported that federal records show that two mystery companies in September donated over $12 million to the super PAC of FreedomWorks, the tea party-supporting organization that this week was rocked by the abrupt resignation of its chairman, Dick Armey, the former Republican House majority leader. These contributions accounted for more than half of the $23.2 million the group raised for the 2012 campaign, and they came from two shadowy Knoxville-Tennessee-based firms—Specialty Group, Inc., and Pike Development LLC—that publicly have no reason to exist other than apparently to make contributions and mask the true source of the money. Moreover, Armey tells Mother Jones that he knew nothing about the donations or the origins of the cash and that he quit FreedomWorks partly because of a lack of transparency.
After the Sunlight Foundation posted this report—noting that the sources of this funding "remain shadowy"—Mother Jones contacted Armey and asked if he had been aware of these contributions and of where the money came from. He replied, "I know nothing about this."
That seemed odd. He was until last Friday the chair of FreedomWorks. Shouldn't he have been in the loop? "This kind of secrecy is why I left," Armey maintained. He added, "I have never seen anything like this before."
Mother Jones then reached Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks (whom Armey has accused of misappropriating FreedomWorks resources for his own personal benefit), and asked if it was unusual for the chairman of an outfit to be in the dark about half of the group's funding. "Well, we have 81,000 individual donors," Kibbe replied. Indeed, but only two donations that account for over $12 million. Nothing curious about Armey not being in-the-know? "It's not unusual," Kibbe said. He continued: "I don't know about these [donations]. It's the first time I've heard."
This seemed even more bizarre. Would Kibbe not know where half of the money for his group's super PAC came from? In fact, in September, Associated Press reported,
A shadowy Tennessee company donated more than $5 million to a prominent conservative super political action committee days after establishing itself…Campaign finance reports filed late Thursday show that the political committee, FreedomWorks for America, received seven donations totaling $5.28 million from Knoxville-based Specialty Group Inc. The money, which accounted for about 90 percent of FreedomWorks for America's donations during the first 15 days of October, is helping pay for TV ads supporting conservative candidates for federal office.
That money helped underwrite a massive $1.5 million television ad buy targeting Democrat Tammy Duckworth who was challenging Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a leading tea partier. At the time, a FreedomWorks spokesman declined to comment, and the registered owner of Specialty Group, William S. Rose, stayed mum, as well. (The money didn't help; Duckworth won the race.)
When asked how he could not be aware of these hefty donations, Kibbe requested that he be sent the Sunlight Foundation article and said, "I'm not supposed to comment before reading."
Armey's bad-blood departure from FreedomWorks—which yielded him an $8 million payout—has created a bigtime dustup. And the group's big secrets may well be in jeopardy.