Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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November Looms

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:14 PM EST

Imagine that nine months from now, all of your neighbors got to vote on whether you should keep your job. Even if you thought you would win that vote, it would definitely be on your mind—a lot.

That's how members of Congress—especially Democrats—are feeling right now. In nine months, they could be out of a job. Fear is one reason that Dems are balking at the prospect of pushing through health care reform. And the way the November elections are shaping up, it looks like Dems are right to be worried. The big election news today is that Beau Biden, Delaware's attorney general (and the son of Vice President Joe Biden) won't run for his Dad's old Senate seat. That means Mike Castle will probably win the seat. Castle is a Republican member of the House who is the state's most popular politician. Castle has been winning statewide elections in the First State since the Reagan era, and he'll be a heavy favorite to win in November.

The other big election-related news for today is a Rasmussen poll out of Indiana that shows Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) leading Evan Bayh, the incumbent Democratic Senator, by 3. The race is already on election expert Nate Silver's takeover radar, even though Pence hasn't announced he will run.

Between the Bayh and Biden news, the Democrats look increasingly likely to risk losing control of the Senate. North Dakota, where Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring, looks like a near-lock for GOP Governor John Hoeven. Delaware looks like a lock for Castle. Democratic incumbents are also in serious trouble in Nevada (Harry Reid), Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Pennsylvania (onetime GOPer Arlen Specter), and Colorado (appointed Sen. Michael Bennet). If Republicans can sweep those four races, win the two near-locks, pick up the open seat in Illinois (where popular Rep. Mark Kirk is running), beat Bayh in Indiana, and beat Barbara Boxer in California and get Joe Lieberman to switch allegiances, they'll have control of the Senate. Right now, all of those tasks look achievable. But even in the best cycles, it's hard to get everything to go your party's way. Nate Silver puts the odds of the Republicans getting to 50-50 or beyond at a bit less than 15 percent. That seems about right. But unless the national environment changes, the Dems are definitely set to lose a bunch of seats—and we haven't even talked about the House of Representatives yet.

So is there any hope for the Democrats and President Barack Obama's agenda? Tom Jensen of PPP, a polling firm, thinks they might have a shot at salvaging a few seats if they run anti-establishment candidates in the open-seat races:

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ACLU Sues for Torture Memos Report

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 4:25 PM EST

Remember in June, when I told you the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report on the authors of the "torture memos" was due out soon? It was going to be released in "a matter of weeks," Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee. Then, in November, Holder told another Senate panel that the report would come out "by the end of the month." While, it's January now, and the OPR report is nowhere to be found. The American Civil Liberties Union is tired of waiting, so today it filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the release of the report. Maybe that will finally get the Justice Department to keep its promises. Don't count on it, though.

Blame Bush for Citizens United

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:44 PM EST

Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Many independent voters and some Republicans seem to agree with most liberals that the Supreme Court's decision to flood elections with corporate money was, quite simply, insane. One of those Republicans is Mark McKinnon, the political operative who did media strategy for George W. Bush and John McCain. McKinnon is on the board of Change Congress, law professor Larry Lessig's aggressive campaign finance reform organization, and he clearly buys Lessig's argument that campaign finance restrictions are good for small-government conservatives. (Short version: Lessig and McKinnon argue that big corporations and interest groups use campaign donations to expand government to benefit themselves.)

The problem, however, is that the Supreme Court's conservatives wouldn't have had the majority they needed to push through this decision if it weren't for Samuel Alito and John Roberts. George W. Bush appointed them, and Mark McKinnon, of course, worked to elect George W. Bush. So I asked McKinnon if he felt partially responsible for the decision he calls "outrageous." The answer: not really. "I didn't agree with President Bush on a lot of things but I supported him for President, did so without reservation, and have no regrets about that," McKinnon said. "I disagree with this decision, I disagree with the notion that corporations need a first amendment vote, and I've always expressed my disagreements with my Republican community and that's why I'm doing so today."

When I asked McKinnon whether he would have preferred for Bush to appoint justices who would have made a different decision on this case, he said that he would have "preferred a different outcome," but that he "didn't get to make those decisions, the president did."

That's all well and good, and it's nice that McKinnon is supporting Change Congress. But it's worth remembering (especially if you're an independent voter disgusted by the decision) that this ruling is the result of Republican rule and conservative Supreme Court appointments.

With very few exceptions, the modern GOP has always been opposed to campaign finance restrictions. That's despite the obvious fact that regulations and the tax code would be simpler, and handouts to government favorites rarer, if members of Congress weren't so dependent on campaign donations.

One of the precedents the Supreme Court gutted (well, contradicted the spirit of) on Thursday was McConnell v. FEC, brought by the current Republican leader in the Senate. Mitch McConnell sued the Federal Election Commission in 2002 claiming that campaign finance laws were, in the words of our own Stephanie Mencimer, "a violation of his First Amendment right to take gobs of corporate money to get elected." McConnell was at the Court again on Thursday to celebrate his ultimate victory.

SCOTUS: Foreign Corporations Have Rights, Too!

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 1:51 PM EST

Politico's Josh Gerstein has a great story today pointing out that, in the wake of yesterday's Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, there's really nothing to stop foreign companies from supporting or opposing US candidates. It would be as easy as setting up a US subsidiary and having the subsidiary spend the money. Some of Gerstein's sources argue that foreign corporations would be reluctant to interfere in US politics because it could bring bad press. But that doesn't seem like much of a deterrent to the worst corporations. Do foreign corporations like Gazprom that are largely state-owned really care what the US press writes about them? Law professor Mark Kleiman has more

One aspect of the ruling that hasn’t gathered much attention: as far as I can tell, the analysis doesn’t distinguish between domestic and foreign corporations.  Not that it would matter much, since a foreign corporation can always establish a domestic subsidiary, or buy an American company:   Cities Service, for example, is a unit of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company.  So the ruling allows Hugo Chavez to spend as much money as he wants to helping and harming American politicians.   If the Russian, Saudi, and Chinese governments don’t currently have appropriate vehicles for doing so, you can count on it:  they soon will.

Nor is this a problem that can be handled by "disclosure."  The ad on TV praising the opponent of the congressman who did something to annoy Hugo Chavez won’t say "Paid for by Hugo Chavez."  It will say "Paid for by Citizens for Truth, Justice, and the American Way," which in turn will have gotten a contribution from "Americans for Niceness," which in turn will have gotten a contribution from a lobbyist for a subsidiary of Cities Service that no one has ever heard of.

This week just keeps getting better.

What If You Were Indefinitely Detained?

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 1:50 PM EST

Flickr/localsurfer (Creative Commons).Flickr/localsurfer (Creative Commons).The Obama administration has officially decided that it will continue to detain around 50 terrorist suspects without trial. And if the administration is taking this position with respect to people who have already been held for as long as eight years, "they will almost certainly take the same position with respect to people picked up in the future," says Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project.

Pretty much everyone agrees with the idea that real terrorists should be in jail. The problem is that the government sometimes makes mistakes about who is a terrorist, or who committed terrorist acts. It's made them before, and it will make them again. The Obama administration is just as capable as the Bush administration was of mistakenly imprisoning an Afghani goatherder or two dope-smoking tourists.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, these folks can now challenge their detention by filing a habeas corpus petition in federal court. But as Glenn Greenwald explains, "mere habeas corpus review does not come close to a real trial, which the Bill of Rights guarantees to all "persons" (not only 'Americans') before the State can keep them locked in a cage." Shouldn't the government have to have evidence before it can imprison someone forever? So the problem the Obama administration now faces is, as Jaffer says, "wanting to close Guantanamo without ending the policies"—namely indefinite detention without trial—"that Gitmo represents." That's a "purely cosmetic change," Jaffer says. And as Spencer Ackerman demonstrates in his excellent one-act play, "Indefinite Detention Of The Soul," there's simply no reason for Democratic senators to support moving Gitmo if the change is purely cosmetic.

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