During the fractious health care reform fight of 2010, one of the sticking points preventing the bill from moving forward was a controversial amendment proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat. The so-called Stupak amendment would have forbidden Obamacare plans from covering abortion, instead requiring Americans who wanted this coverage to purchase separate, abortion-only policies. Stupak lost the battle, but he's winning the war. Twenty-three states have adopted similar rules—and Stupak's home state of Michigan could be the latest to join them.
On Monday, a state elections board is expected to certify a petition drive, organized by the anti-abortion group Michigan Right to Life, in support of a law prohibiting public and private health insurance plans from covering abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The only exception is when a woman's life is at risk. Under the law, individuals and employers could purchase an insurance rider specifically covering abortions. But because employers would have the option of not including the rider in their policies, some women might not even have that choice. If Michigan Right to Life is successful, the bill will go to Michigan's Republican-controlled Legislature for a vote.
On Friday, the Dyersburg Trojans beat the visiting Jackson Northside Indians 34-14 to advance in the Tennessee high school football playoffs. But the game wasn't without controversy: A Facebook page managed by the Dyersburg coaching staff proudly highlighted a half-dozen photos of Dyersburg students holding up a giant "Trail of Tears" banner to taunt the visiting Jackson Northside team.
Dyersburg principal Jon Frye said he was not aware of the photos on the football team's Facebook page but would ask moderators to take them down. "I will be leaving here and going to the fieldhouse as soon as you and I are done," he told Mother Jones on Wednesday. Sure enough, the photos have since been removed, but here's a screenshot:
Frye, who did not attend the playoff game, said he became aware of the signs on Friday and met with students on Monday and hopes this will be the last of it. "Largely I tried to draw a parallel between persecuted population groups," he said. "You would not take African Americans and try to draw a parallel to an event in which a lot of African American people had died."
This is the second recent incident involving fans of a high school football team using "Trail of Tears" signs to taunt "Indian" opponents. That same Friday night, the principal of McAdory High School in McAlla, Alabama, was forced to apologize after his team took the field for their second-round playoff game against the Pinson Valley Indians by running through a paper sign reading "Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a trail of tears."
The incidents come amid a renewed push by activists and lawmakers to persuade the Washington NFL franchise to change its name and logo to something less racially insensitive. On November 5, DC's city council approved a resolution asking the team to change its name. Although supporters of such names say the names are intended to honor American Indian heritage, the lesson of Dyersburg and Jackson Northside may be just the opposite.
"I haven't given that one a ton of thought, I know, but I guess you could make the logical connection if they weren't named Indians then you couldn't have this particular situation," Frye said of the school's opponent. "I suppose there's some truth to that."
Politico's Glenn Thrush has a revealing new piece on the pressures of being in President Obama's cabinet—a supposedly fun thing most of its members will never do again. There a lot of nuggets in there, but one in particular stood out: the White House's private outrage at former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu's impromptu decision to talk about climate change while visiting an island nation uniquely threatened by it. On a trip to Trinidad and Tobago with the president, a staffer persuaded press secretary Robert Gibbs to let Chu answer a few questions:
Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. "I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes," Chu said. "This is something that is very, very scary to all of us…The island states…some of them will disappear."
Earnest slunk backstage. "OK, we'll never do that again," he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, "If you don't kill [Chu], I'm going to."
Emanuel didn't kill Chu, although that would have made for a more interesting story.
A couple things stand out here. Trinidad and Tobago is seriously threatened by climate change, and given the efforts of similarly situated island nations—the Maldives, Tuvalu—to call attention to the crisis, it's hardly an insult to use the occasion of a trip to the country to talk about it. (Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago's capital, is 10 feet above sea level.) But this underscores just how narrow the White House's thinking was at that time. Does anyone actually remember Steven Chu speaking out about sea level rises in Trinidad and Tobago? Did it really distract from the president's economic message? Were there mass protests in the streets of Port of Spain? Did it delay pending legislation or result in any electoral setbacks? The reality is that talking about climate change probably isn't going to be a catastrophe, no matter how awkward it might seem at the time—but not talking about climate change most definitely will.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will speak at a fundraising dinner this week honoring Mat Staver, an ardent anti-gay activist who has defended Malawi's ban on homosexuality. Staver is suing New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie for signing a law banning gay-to-straight conversion therapy, and has said that teaching gay rights in schools is tantamount to "sexual assault."
Rubio, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, will deliver the keynote address at the annual fundraiser for the Florida Family Policy Council, a prominent social conservative organization that promotes so-called "conversion therapy" to help LGBT individuals become straight. Conversion therapy has been condemned as a form of abuse by psychologists. It is banned outright in a handful of states beyond New Jersey, including California. The American Psychiatric Association, which does not endorse conversion therapy, says the practice is at best ineffective and at worst can "reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."
According to an invitation to the November 16 event, first reported by the progressive watchdog siteRight Wing Watch, the dinner will honor Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and founder of the Liberty Counsel, which provides legal support to social conservative organizations. Staver's group filed a lawsuit against Christie last week alleging that New Jersey's new ban on gay conversion therapy prevented a couple from properly treating their son. Staver has a history of making incendiary claims about gays. In June, he claimed that the passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT employees and applicants, would "result in significant damage and even death of some individuals." After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last summer, Staver suggested the decision would bring the nation closer to "the realm of rebellion."
John Stemberger, the Florida Family Policy Council's president, is also an anti-gay activist. He is chairman of Trail Life, the "moral alternative" to the Boy Scouts of America, which recently lifted its ban on gay Scouts. Trail Life won't accept openly gay boys as members, but offers counseling services to kids who suffer from "gender confusion."
"We're not going to tolerate somebody who's, you know, here and queer, loud and proud, all of that nonsense," Stemberger told social-conservative radio host Janet Mefferd. Stemberger, a lawyer, also triggered a minor international incident in 1999, when he sued Dollar rental car for negligence for renting a vehicle to an Irish tourist who got in an accident with his client. "Anyone who has studied Ireland knows it's just a fact: To the Irish, drinking and driving is not a big deal," he said at the time.The former mayor of Dublin told the Irish Times that Stemberger's lawsuit was "racist and absurd."
Rubio's office did not respond to a request for comment.
When I met Michael Bagley at the Hamilton, a cavernous watering hole two blocks from the White House, he was decked out like Sterling Archer: black turtleneck, black pants, black shoes. It seemed fitting for a man whose company—Jellyfish—sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a spy novel. The firm specializes in "political intelligence," the fastest-growing Washington industry you've never heard of.
"What's the old Gordon Gekko quote? Information is a valuable thing," the 45-year-old Bagley said as he sipped his pale ale. Jellyfish collects information about what's happening behind the scenes and rushes it to its corporate clients so they can make investments based on things like forthcoming regulations or tax code tweaks. Secrecy is a key selling point; the firm isn't required to disclose its agents or customers. "So a company like Philip Morris would like a seat at the table, literally and figuratively," Bagley said, somewhat reluctantly name-dropping his biggest client at the moment. "We provide that to them." In addition to tracking legislative and regulatory wheeling and dealing, his shop connects clients with officials at places like US Central Command, the better to figure out, say, what impact overseas military operations could have on tobacco shipments. Bagley's original associates were veterans of the security contractor Academi (formerly Xe, previously Blackwater) and Able Danger, a Pentagon program that was said to have identified Mohamed Atta before September 11.
Though Jellyfish traffics in knowledge that's "nonpublic or not easily accessible to the public," Bagley insisted that everything it does is aboveboard. "We work on unclassified information, but our information is based on relationships," he explained. "Just like you and I are having a beer here, we're just exchanging information. There's nothing nefarious going on here."
As Wall Street has pursued ever more complex ways to make a buck, the political-intelligence industry has boomed, bringing in $402 million in 2009, according to Integrity Research Associates, which tracks the PI sector. That's still small potatoes compared to the $3.3 billion lobbying industry, but it has caught the eye of critics who worry that it amounts to selling special access to the public's business. "This is basically the kind of thing that America hates," says former lobbyist-turned-reformer Jack Abramoff.
"I'm not even sure if you made it illegal there's any way to enforce it. It's ingenious."
Heather Podesta, a corporate lobbyist who once proudly sewed a scarlet "L" on her dress at a Democratic convention party, recalls the moment several years ago when she realized political intel had taken on a life of its own. Hedge funders had packed the audience at a Senate hearing on asbestos legislation. They had no interest in the policy implications; they just wanted to find out first so they could place their bets for or against the asbestos makers. "The whole thing," Podesta tells me at the power-lunch staple Charlie Palmer, "was just so sleazy." Yet so long as they don't veer into insider trading or Abramoff-style shenanigans, the political-intelligence firms aren't breaking any laws. "All they're doing is discovering the information and conveying it," concedes Abramoff, whose influence-peddling schemes swept up a half-dozen Republican lawmakers and landed him in prison. "I'm not even sure if you made it illegal there's any way to enforce it. It's ingenious."
The political-intelligence industry began to take shape in the early 1980s. As federal regulatory power expanded, big business wanted to know what happened in obscure subcommittee hearings—and didn't want to wait for the next day's papers to read about it. In 1984, investment banker Ivan Boesky hired lobbyists to attend committee hearings about a big oil merger and report back to him. It paid off: Boesky made a cool $65 million just by finding out first and buying low. "Investors started to realize that there was money to be made by knowing what was going on in Washington and knowing it as quickly as possible," says Michael Mayhew, the founder of Integrity Research Associates.
As Wall Street put an ever-greater premium on speed, investing in supercomputers to place orders milliseconds before the competition, the industry took off. The biggest known score came in 2005, when Congress was weighing approval of a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos liability claims at the hearings Podesta witnessed. A few days before then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced a vote on the plan, hedge funds snapped up stock in companies that would be shielded from lawsuits if the fund were set up. The Securities and Exchange Commission suspected that advance notice of the vote had leaked from the senator's office to lobbyists who then tipped off their political-intelligence clients. That the asbestos fund ultimately never came to be was beside the point; the hedge funds had already made their money.
In 2006, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) introduced the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which banned insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs. It also mandated that firms that specialize in information peddling (journalists excepted) register and disclose their clients and payments. But in the final version passed last year, that provision was removed after a furious lobbying push. "I didn't even realize we were going to get hit with that type of opposition," says Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen. "Wall Street brought out their guns." Much of the pushback came from the Securities Industry and Financial Market Association, which spent more than $5.5 million lobbying Congress last year.
Transparency advocates admit that there's a lot they don't know about how the industry works, which is one reason they suspect it's up to no good. "It sounds cloak-and-dagger, but what the heck: There's billions of dollars involved here," says former Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a sponsor of the STOCK Act. "It's only a matter of time before there's going to be a massive scandal," says one Republican Senate staffer.
It is hard to define what exactly constitutes political intelligence, much less when it crosses the line between research and sleaze. In April, a firm called Height Securities alerted its clients to an imminent change in Medicare Advantage rates, prompting them to buy up health care stocks. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) launched an investigation into how the company got its inside information, yet so far there's been no evidence of wrongdoing. When I called Bagley in late summer, he told me that Jellyfish had rearranged its operations to focus on foreign governments, citing the "lack of continuity in what the definition of political intelligence is, was, and was going to be."
What likely won't change, though, is the commodification of policy as K Street increasingly caters to the financial industry. "What is it Wall Street wants?" asks Barbara Dreyfuss, a former political-intelligence analyst who's now an investigative reporter. "They want quick action. They want insider information that only they know that will give them quick action. And that's because Wall Street has become a speculative bonanza."