Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Bracing For the Great Mississippi Valley Earthquake

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 10:41 AM EDT

With many DC residents still cowering nervously under our desks after yesterday's earthquake, Dave Weigel flags a rather regrettable tweet from Sen. John McCain from 2009. (Regrettable Tweets from John McCain is good Tumblr idea, come to think of it.) McCain has a habit of going on Twitter sprees, in which he rattles off a long list of earmarks that he considers to be prima facie ludicrous. Like this one:

The punchline is that this is a terrible waste of money because everyone knows Memphis doesn't even have earthquakes.

But actually, the punchline here is John McCain, who is blissfully ignorant of the fact that Memphis, Tennessee actually does sit on top of a major fault line, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. There haven't been any major earthquakes on the New Madrid fault since the winter of 1811–1812 (when there were four), but FEMA believes that a serious earthquake in Memphis "is likely to constitute the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," due to the impact it would have on interstate commerce, agriculture, and property damage. It would displace about up to 7 million people and could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. A FEMA-commissioned study, meanwhile, showed that the likelihood of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake occuring along the New Madrid fault in the next 50 years was 90 percent. There are also 15 nuclear power plants within the New Madrid Seismic Zone. If a major earthquake were to happen there, it would go "way beyond Katrina" in terms of devastation, as one senior Department of Defense official put it, according to Wired.

As it happens, there's a debate within the seismological community about just how much of a threat there is of an earthquake in the Midwest. A Northwestern University professor I spoke with in April believes that the fault may have shut off, in which case spending money on earthquake readiness would be a bad investment. What's at stake? Billions of dollars in long-term costs (shoring up all federal buildings, for instance) as well as harder-to-calculate economic costs to communities along the fault. Folks in Paducah, Kentucky say the threat of a major earthquake there has made it harder to lure new businesses. With so much hinging on the science, investing in research right now may actually be a very cost-effective approach.

The larger issue here is that McCain and plenty of other lawmakers have sought to make the case that earmarks are by definition wasteful, as part of their crusade against government spending. But earmarks have about the same degree of usefulness as any other form of non-earmarked funding. In reality, it's not the earmarks themselves that McCain should be concerned with; it's the process by which they're allocated.

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Poll: Bachmann Peaked at Ames, Birthers Not Going Away

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 11:55 AM EDT
Despite her Iowa roots, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is on pace for a third-place finish in the Hawkeye State.

Public Policy Polling is out with a new survey of Iowa Republicans that's good news for Texas Governor Rick Perry, bad news for Rep. Michele Bachmann, and just really depressing news for the rest of us. The main takeaway is that PPP sees Bachmann's support in the critical first-in-the-nation caucus state slipping precipitously since she won the Ames Straw Poll earlier this month. Bachmann's Ames victory came on the same day Perry entered the race, and since then, Perry seems to have picked up much of her support. The two are widely seen as competing for the same pot of socially conservative voters, but in a head-to-head contest between the two of them, Perry crushes Bachmann, 51 percent to 27 percent, with 22 percent undecided. From PPP's Tom Jensen:

It's clear that Bachmann has gotten virtually no momentum out of her victory in the Ames Straw Poll. She was in 3rd place when we polled Iowa in June and she's in third place now. Beyond that her favorability numbers in the state have taken a significant hit. In June she had a 53/16 breakdown. Since then her positive number has dropped 6 points from 53% to 47%, and her negative number has climbed 19 points from 16% to 35%.

Courtesy of Public Policy PollingCourtesy of Public Policy Polling

The news is just bad for supporters of fact-based reality. Although the number of admitted birthers plunged nationally following the death of Osama bin Laden and the production of President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate, a majority of Iowa Republicans still aren't convinced that the Commander in Chief was born in the United States. Just 48 percent say he was, with 32 percent firmly in the other camp, and 20 percent still holding out for the long-long form birth certificate (or something).

The full diclaimer, as usual, is that it's still early. Very, very early. Perry is currently riding the wave that comes with a high-profile announcement tour, but as we've reported, there are cracks in his armor that are likely to be exploited. And unlike standard primary states, Iowa's caucuses aren't straight-up popularity contests; they're time-consuming affairs that rely heavily on organization. In other words: Don't count Bachmann out just yet.

Allen West: Israeli PM Netanyahu is Western Civilization's Best Hope

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 10:56 PM EDT
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) says Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is Western Civilization's last, best hope.

It's August and Congress is out of session, which means your elected representatives are probably back home meeting with constituents in Israel right now, on a junket paid for by an affiliate of AIPAC, the nation's largest pro-Israel lobbying group. The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that 81 members of Congress—a full 20 percent of the lower chamber—had plans to visit Israel this month, on two separate trips led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The summer sojourn has become a routine of sorts; Minnesota Rep. and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who believes America will be cursed if it fails to sufficiently support Israel, has taken regular trips to the country since being first elected in 2008.

Ostensibly the purpose of these trips is to see the sights, snag some photo-ops, and show Evangelical supporters back home that Congress is sufficiently gung-ho about Israel (because that was unclear). But a corollary of all of that is that it gives Republican congressmen who really, really don't like President Obama a chance to hang out with a head-of-state whom they actually support. It's part of a trend. You'll recall that Sarah Palin once said, during the Couric Sessions, that it would be flat-out un-American for the President to second-guess any decision by the Israeli government—even if it seemed to run counter to America's best interests. To wit, here's Florida Rep. Allen West, writing on Monday in a letter to his constituents:

For the second time in my life,  I am in Israel this week, but this is the first time I am visiting as a United States Member of Congress. I will have the opportunity, at this critical juncture, to meet with Israeli leadership and even visit with the representatives of the Palestinian Authority. My message is very simple; I stand with Israel, not with a backdoor unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state – particularly one which has joined in a reconciliation pact with Hamas.

In Israel, I will get the opportunity to meet with a true Leader, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. At a time when western civilization has no leading voice, I believe the only one that resonates, speaks Hebrew. And no, I am not afraid of going to Israel at this time. On the contrary, this is the best time to go to Israel!

Emphasis mine. The contrast is pretty clear here: West considers the President of the United States to be a "low-level socialist agitator"; he believes the Israeli Prime Minister is the last great hope of Western Civilization.

"Hate Group" Affiliates Take Millions in Government Pork

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 12:01 PM EDT
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins

Andy Birkey of the Minnesota Independent has a good report this morning on how the state affiliates of the Family Research Council have quietly taken in nearly $6 million in government funding (state and federal) over the last five years. The FRC is a leading social conservative organization that's been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center on account of its use of debunked and misleading arguments against gay rights (one FRC spokesman suggested it wouldn't be a bad idea if gays just left the country entirely). The organization and its satellites have hit Democrats hard for spending too much, but, as Birkey reports, a chunk of that spending has actually gone to the FRC's network.

For instance:

The Family Action Council of Tennessee received $10,000 from the state of Tennessee to host anti-pornography workshop in 2008. FACT supports cutting government spending. They also insinuate that the poor should pay more. "It seems to me that a major problem in Washington is that right at 50 percent of Americans no longer pay federal taxes," wrote the group's head David Fowler.

"Sexually oriented businesses often prey upon urban communities and those located along interstate routes and major state highways, especially where there are few zoning restrictions," the group said on the event invite. "Adult businesses are now pursuing their agenda through their own state association and have a lobbyist promoting their interests at the state Capitol. This is not an 'industry' your community can afford to ignore."

The hypocrisy angle strikes me as a bit off. The FRC and its network aren't calling for an end to government spending altogether—they're calling for an end to what they consider to be the wrong kind of government spending, which is anything that reeks of the nanny state. There are several reasons for that, but basically, they worry that government is in competition with the church and the family, and that government assistance programs have a perverse impact on Americans' morals. But by extension, funding that helps support "pro-family" organizations would actually be a pretty good thing in the FRC's book.

The larger issue is that state and federal agencies are dolling out cash to an organization that believes church-state watchdogs are "cultural terrorists" and that Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign, designed to combat gay teen suicides, is "disgusting." And unlike, say, the food stamp program, which wouldn't exist without a bureaucracy to manage it, holding seminars on the evils of pornography to already persuaded audiences is exactly what the Family Action Council of Tennessee would be doing, with or without that $10,000 government check.

For more, I'd suggest you consult anti-anti-smut activist and former Miami mayoral candidate Luther Campbell: 

Rick Perry vs. The Trial Lawyers

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 10:00 AM EDT
The Torts and the Hair: Texas Governor Rick Perry has made tort reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Politico's Alexander Burns reports today that trial lawyers are gearing up for a major fundraising effort against Texas Governor Rick Perry, should he win the GOP presidential nomination:

Among litigators, there is no presidential candidate who inspires the same level of hatred — and fear — as Perry, an avowed opponent of the plaintiffs’ bar who has presided over several rounds of tort reform as governor...

That's a potential financial boon to [Obama] who has unsettled trial lawyers with his own rhetorical gestures in the direction of tort reform. A general election pitting Barack Obama against Perry could turn otherwise apathetic trial lawyers into a phalanx of pro-Obama bundlers and super PAC donors.

"If this guy emerges, if he's a serious candidate, if he doesn't blow up in the next couple weeks, it's going to motivate many in the plaintiffs' bar to dig deeper to support President Obama," said Sean Coffey, a former securities litigator who ran for attorney general of New York last year. "That will end up driving a lot of money to the Democratic side."

So that's the horse-race element of it. The larger battle here, which my colleague Stephanie Mencimer literally wrote the book about, is that conservatives and their business interests have for decades attempted to demonize trial lawyers for multiple reasons, none of which really involve your best interests. Perry makes a tort reform a major part of his stump speech; it's one of the four steps he would take as president to turn the economy around, along with lower taxes, fewer regulations, and reduced spending. And, to his credit I suppose, he has made it a priority in Texas so at least he's consistent. But as Kevin Drum points out, Perry's crusade against frivolous lawsuits has really just made it harder for people with legitimate claims to file suit, without offering the return on investment (lower health care costs, primarily) it purports to deliver.

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