2005 - %3, May

No Filibuster For You

| Wed May 18, 2005 1:02 PM EDT

Over at ThinkProgress, Judd Legum catches Bill Frist in a bit of a bind. Frist, you will recall, wants to take away the Democrat's ability to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees—because it's "unfair" or "unconstitutional" or some nonsense of the sort. But as it happens, Frist himself voted to uphold a filibuster of one of Bill Clinton's nominees, Richard Paez, in 2000. When asked about this by another senator this morning, Frist said:

The president, the um, in response, uh, the Paez nomination - we'll come back and discuss this further. … Actually I'd like to, and it really brings to what I believe - a point - and it really brings to, oddly, a point, what is the issue. The issue is we have leadership-led partisan filibusters that have, um, obstructed, not one nominee, but two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, in a routine way.

Um, um, um. One filibuster is okay and perfectly constitutional but not two or three or four? That's quite the standard.

At any rate, for a truly confused look at the filibuster issue, see the editors of the National Review this morning. To be honest, I can't even tell what they're saying. Something like: "The filibuster is constitutional, true… but that doesn't mean it's constitutionally required, see?… but then it's also true that the constitution doesn't require judges to be confirmed along a majority vote, either… but Democrats are bad… but aaahhhh! nuclear option good!" Um, okay. The basic issue, though, is clear: Frist is trying to break Senate rules so that Democrats can't use against Bush's nominees the very maneuver he himself once used against Clinton's nominees. Law and order means nothing.

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Take the Deal

| Wed May 18, 2005 11:12 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore says that if the Senate Democrats can work out a compromise on judges with some of the moderate Republicans, they should take it. That seems about right. The latest rumored deal would confirm all of Bush's nominees but perhaps the two worst—Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen—and Democrats would keep the right to filibuster nominees in the future, including potential Supreme Court nominees. There's no shame in that.

At any rate, Bush's picks for the lower and appellate courts are, to some extent, less important, since those judges are more or less constrained by precedent from the Supreme Court (although they're still important!). The real battle will be when Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires, and Democrats should be prepared to force the president to nominate only conservatives who respect the current Constitutional order and show some restraint. (Jeffrey Rosen wrote up a profile a while back that divvied up the GOP judge stable into "conservative activists" and "principled conservatives"—the idea is that the former group is more likely to plunge the country back into is pre-New Deal paradise of stripped-back environmental regulations, no labor protections, and other funny goodies; the latter group is conservative, sure, but also willing to uphold judicial precedent.)

As for the politics of all this, well, I don't think Democrats win or lose. Some of the activist base might be upset if moderate Democratic Senators strike a deal and let through a few of Bush's judicial nominees—who are quite conservative—but as I've argued at length here, in the short term, the right-wing theocrat fringe probably wins by going nuclear, and it's a better deal for all involved to preserve the Senate's right to filibuster judicial nominees. Plus, Democrats will get to claim a victory over Frist and the nuclear brigade.

Some Senate Republicans, on the other hand, would very likely suffer from any sort of compromise. Bill Frist's bid for the presidency in 2008 would essentially be over; the party base will never forgive his bumbling inability to push the red button. More to the point, discontented right-wing evangelicals—who at this point would seem to accept nothing less than full-scale public neutering of each and every Democrat in Congress—may well end up sitting out the 2006 midterm elections in disappointment. That would hurt the GOP. Or the base may renew their push next year, hoping to give Republicans 60 Senate seats and finally abolish the filibuster once and for all. It all depends on how much abuse the Christian right can take from a patron party that, quite frankly, can't deliver the goods.

Burning Planet

| Tue May 17, 2005 4:08 PM EDT

For coverage of global warming, I have to admit, I'm a bit biased towards the May/June issue of Mother Jones. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Kolbert has written a tremendous three-part series in the New Yorker (one, two, three) about the subject that's very much worth reading in full. Especially valuable is her visit to various parts of the world to chart the effects of climate change on actual people; she describes her visit to Alaska in a Q&A with Amy Goodman:

Alaska is being very dramatically affected by climate change; the state is warming up just about as fast as any place on earth. This is producing a lot of problems in Native communities; several Native villages may have to be moved owing to erosion that is being caused, or at least hastened, by climate change. It's also affecting daily life in places like Fairbanks, parts of which are built on permafrost. As the permafrost degrades, people's houses are starting to split apart. The roads need to be repaired more often; sometimes they just cave in.

Ironically, it's also affecting the oil industry. The kind of heavy equipment used in oil exploration is allowed out on the tundra only when the ground is frozen to a depth of twelve inches. Since 1970 the number of days that meet that condition has been reduced by half. Early on, computer models developed by scientists working on climate change predicted that global warming would have a disproportionate effect in the Arctic.

That last paragraph reminds me of a report released shortly after the election last November noting that the downsides to the oil industry from global warming will likely far, far outweigh the upsides of from increased sea access in the Arctic. Land facilities will collapse. Ground transport will be harder. Oil spills will likely increase. Maybe something the oil industry should think seriously about before, y'know, shelling out millions to "debunk" the science of climate change. And yes, scare quotes are there for a reason.

News... weak?

Mon May 16, 2005 7:59 PM EDT

Last week, Newsweek published an article "reporting: that, "sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." Soon after, riots broke out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, and Indonesia, among other places. The White House and Army quickly apologized, insisting they would look into the allegations. But there was also a sense that the riots breaking out had more to do with political unrest that had already been plaguing Afghanistan than with Newsweek's allegations. Just this weekend, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, declared, "foreign hands are trying to disturb our parliamentary elections and are against the strengthening of the peace process."

The U.S. seemed to agree. According to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, the senior commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry thought that "the violence that we saw…was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran… [Eikenberry] thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

Yesterday, Newsweek issued an apology for its original article. "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst." Pentagon spokesmen jumped on the apology, attacking the credibility of Newsweek. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says, "It's puzzling that while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refused to retract the story. The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged." Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence Di Rita offered, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said."

It's important, before we go jumping to conclusions that the media is completely without credibility, to identify exactly what Newsweek got wrong. Note: "On Saturday, Isikoff [author of the Newsweek article] spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report." Moreover, Isikoff had shown the story to a senior Pentagon official, who did not dispute the Koran claim.

So here's the thing: Newsweek didn't publish anything incorrect. Sources did tell Newsweek that he recalled a Koran/toilet incident in the report. But it turns out that the source cannot be sure that the incident was in the SouthCom report. Note that the editor of Newsweek states that, "The source had been reliable in the past, and was in a position to know about the report he was describing." Also note that the Pentagon is still trying to find out if the allegations are true. According to General Myers, military investigators at Guantanamo "have looked through the logs, the interrogation logs, and they cannot confirm yet [emphasis added] that there were ever the case of the toilet incident."

I'm still perplexed as to why Newsweek apologized. They did not print anything incorrect. Rather, they used a source that proved reliable in the past that turned out to not be able to peg his claim directly to one report, but still holds that the claim is true. And yet, in their May 23rd issue, Newsweek writes, "How did Newsweek get its facts wrong? And how did the story feed into serious international unrest?" Give me a break. It's seems naïve at best, and ignorant at worst to think that Newsweek's allegations of interrogators desecrating the Koran single-handedly fomented the deaths and unrest throughout the Middle East. It's hardly the first time allegations of this kind have emerged. And we still have yet to hear the final word on whether or not they are true.

Not only is Newsweek bowing to pressures, the New York Times even used their story on the issue to shamelessly defend and one-up themselves: "Reader surveys have said that the use of unnamed officials is one of the biggest reasons their trust in the news media has eroded, and several news organizations, including The New York Times, have been tightening rules on the use of unnamed officials." Likewise the BBC covers the story with the headline, "Koran story brings US journalism crisis." They go on to discuss how the BBC has reassessed its journalistic practices of late. Good for them. But it still remains to be seen that Newsweek got it all wrong. So to all those jumping to conclusions, be it Newsweek themselves, Pentagon officials, or Muslim clerics threatening a holy war: let's just settle down for a minute. The jury is still out on this one.

More Investment Banks Go Green

Mon May 16, 2005 6:06 PM EDT

Late last month, J.P. Morgan Chase became the third major corporate bank to announce that it will take environmental considerations into account when making investment decisions. Its plan—styled around the increasingly popular Equator Principles—seeks to assess the long term economic costs of climate change and environmental issues and factor those risks into loan considerations.

Several conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Free Enterprise Action Fund have attacked plans like these as financially irresponsible. One analyst, Marlo Lewis, in an interview with E&E TV, implied that J.P. Morgan was bullied into the decision by the Rainforest Action Network, and suggested that RAN would play a role in the firm's future decision making:

I believe that they'll have a lot of input and influence in whatever decisions J.P. Morgan makes, especially on what counts as an environmentally acceptable investment or not. I mean you can't get them to adopt these principles and then think that your influence will disappear from then on.

Most people, though, find the notion that an environmental action firm with a staff of less than 30 will in any way be making decisions for one of the country's largest investment firms to be completely absurd.

In fact, there are legitimate reasons why corporate lenders are starting to pay attention to environomental factors. First of all, shareholders are demanding to know how corporations are planning to comply with existing and imminent environmental regulations such as global caps on carbon dioxide. Considering that those who are able to adapt sooner are expected to save money in the long run, it stands to reason that this should factor into investment decisions. Indeed, as the cost of what are often referred to as "negative externalities" becomes increasingly apparent, any firm that fails to account for them will not be making good economic sense.

The real threats of climate change are also being taken seriously by a growing numbers of CEOs and industry leaders. The insurance industry has figured it out. The head of Duke Energy has figured it out. As changes in climate begin to affect global business trends, failing to factor these into investment considerations makes poor economic sense as well.

While 30 of the world's largest banks have pledged to integrate climate change principles into their decision making, it's its still not clear what effect this will have. When asked whether banks will have to do anything beyond considering the suite of options available to them—sitting next to Lewis in the E&E interview—Jon Sohn, senior associate at the World Resources Institute, responded:

That's correct and then they work with the client to develop what's the best option. I think that's a good policy. It makes business sense. It integrates the risk of both climate change and local pollution issues into their decisions.

Of course, risks can always be ignored, and the effects of many forms of environmental degradation may not have obvious financial consequences. But by putting dollars signs on environmental issues and pledging to take long term security into account, there's reason to believe that corporate bankers have reason to start thinking green in more ways than one.

Health and Safety Matters

| Mon May 16, 2005 3:19 PM EDT

Okay, more links to the New York Times—because really, who reads that little rag anyway? Arlen Specter goes op-ed style bashing the Republican opposition to his proposed asbestos fund that would have companies set aside $140 billion to compensate asbestos victims. In particular, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has run ads around the country spreading lies and falsehoods about the new bill in order to defeat it. And as you might guess, Armey's lobbying firm has received serious money from insurance companies who would like to defeat the bill.

But it's not quite as simple as blaming Armey and other bought-and-paid-for Republicans, although that's a big part of it. Jordan Barab of Labor Blog noted a month ago that a wide variety of groups are still wrangling over the provisions. The AFL-CIO has charged that the bill eliminated compensation for a number of lung cancer victims, and contains a whole bunch of clauses that may prevent many workers harmed by asbestos from receiving compensation. Trial lawyers want bigger fees. Senate Republicans are opposed to the measure. There's still a question over whether workers could return to court if and when the fund runs out. It's not at all clear that the final legislation will be anything approaching fair for workers.

Meanwhile, there's a related issue here that Jordan's been working on for some time: Namely, the fact that the AFL-CIO is now dismantling its Health and Safety Department. Lobbying and testifying on the asbestos bill was the sort of thing the department was highly useful for, although Jordan also notes that it's most important function was to: "provide the knowledge, tools and organization that workers can use to defend their rights, their health and their lives when they go to work every day." In an era where the administration in power is assaulting worker safety regulations each and every day—and, as the asbestos flap proves, key Republican lobbyists are pouring millions into defeating compensation for harmed workers—union solidarity against this assault has become all the more important, and the death of the department is extremely troubling.

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Priscilla Owen: Corporate Hack

| Mon May 16, 2005 1:45 PM EDT

The Times' Neil Lewis today chronicles the rise of Justice Priscilla Owen—one of the federal court nominees that Senate Democrats have promised to filibuster—noting the guiding hand of Rove in the background. It's a good piece, but as with many pieces about Owen, the big controversy over her nomination seems to revolve around her abortion views. Those views are appalling, but as Mother Jones' Michael Scherer reported two years ago, it's her business connections—and bought-and-paid-for proclivity to shill for corporations—that are truly troubling. Here's Scherer's description of the Rove and Owen tale:

The conflicts this created were on full display in the case of Priscilla Owen, now a Bush nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. When she first decided in the early 1990s that she wanted to run for a spot on the Texas Supreme Court, she called on Ralph Wayne, president of the Texas Civil Justice League, a trade group formed by the state's manufacturing, transportation, and energy industries. "I said, 'Have you talked to Karl Rove?'" Wayne remembers. "She said, 'No, but I think I should.'"

After Rove met with Wayne and Owen, he signed on, giving the candidate the seal of approval from the state's corporate establishment. The money followed. Owen raised $1.1 million for her successful 1994 state Supreme Court campaign, with a record 21 percent coming directly from the business community and much more coming from corporate defense lawyers. Judge Owen later repaid the favor, in part, by lending her endorsement to a Texas Civil Justice League fundraising appeal.

By the time Rove was done, the last Democrat had been purged from the Texas Supreme Court. "The cases all started getting decided anti-consumer, on the side of big business," says Phil Hardberger, a retired Texas appellate court judge who is a Democrat. Jury verdicts, once embraced by the Democratic court, were now overturned or reduced. By the 1997-98 term, defendants were winning 69 percent of the time, and insurance companies, doctors, and pharmaceutical firms were winning nearly every case. Owen consistently distinguished herself as one of the conservative court's most strident conservatives. In one decision, Owen argued unsuccessfully in support of a water-quality exemption tailored for an Austin land developer who had given $2,500 to her campaign. The court majority dismissed her contention as "nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric."

Like I said, the abortion rhetoric gets all the attention, but it's the business stuff that's truly galling. Note that Karl Rove has worked hard to create a purely corporate judiciary in Texas, and now Republicans are trying to replicate his success on the national stage. And Owen is one of the worst of the bunch. That's the main reason for filibustering her nomination: judges should uphold the rule of law, not the bottom line—and that's a principle well worth going to unprecedented lengths to fight for.

Going Nuclear

| Mon May 16, 2005 1:16 PM EDT

Over the weekend, the New York Times had an interesting article about environmental groups who are starting to rethink their opposition to nuclear power. The "green" reasoning is pretty simple: At the moment, there aren't a whole lot of other options for decreasing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. The wrong reason, meanwhile, for embracing nuclear energy is in the hope that it might decrease our oil imports or lower gas prices. It won't do either. Nuclear power is mostly used to make electricity, and oil isn't much used for that. (Of the 20.5 million barrels we consume a day, only about 600,000 are used by the electric utilities, according to the Energy Department.) If we want to get serious about decreasing our oil addiction, higher fuel standards for cars is the place to start.

Meanwhile, there are still major, major problems with nuclear energy, as I outlined in this piece last November. The three big concerns include: 1) avoiding accidents or theft of nuclear material; 2) "technologies that address complexity, cost, safety, waste management, and proliferation concerns"; and 3) "transparency in nuclear decision-making". At the moment, no existing nuclear technology can satisfy all of these concerns. Meanwhile, Nathan Newman sort of hits on another issue: there's a cap on how much insurance nuclear plants have to carry, so taxpayers are stuck with the bill in the event of a meltdown. True, but the larger worry is that the limit on insurance causes both plant owners and insurers to worry less about safety than they otherwise would. Now I have no idea whether those Republicans now advocating nuclear subsidies are serious about thinking through these various issues, but they're the sort of issues that really need to be thought through.

Just Sign Here

Fri May 13, 2005 6:34 PM EDT

USA Today reports that Army recruiters are working 80-hour weeks to meet monthly enlistment quotas, and they still aren't getting anywhere. Which is why the Army is now offering a 15-month active-duty enlistments. This is the shortest enlistment time ever. And it's a bad idea. As military personnel expert David Segal notes, "Fifteen months is not enough time to learn complex tasks in a high-tech army." The Army is already relying on the National Guard and Reserve to fight in Iraq—often giving them but a few mere days of warning before being shipped off. The problem with this should be obvious by now: fighting the insurgency in Iraq is hardly a conventional war. Anyone sent in to the situation needs to have adequate training and preparation.

National Guard and Reserve soldiers compose over 40 percent of the occupation force in Iraq (and about 25 percent of the fatalities). Under the new Army offer, enlisters would still have to serve in the Reserve or National Guard following their 15-months of active duty. So, I'm assuming that there's a pretty good chance they'll get called back into active duty as soon as their first 15 months are up. It's just disingenuous. And that's a really bad thing to be with people who are signing up to defend this country.

It's not in anyone's best interest to have a slew of people signing up for something they aren't prepared to do. What kind of reinforcement is an angry, scared kid who thought he had signed up to be a medic going to provide in a combat situation? You just aren't going to have good morale if you're tricking enlistees into a situation in which they may die for their country—and morale and conviction or no small matter when fighting the insurgents. Note: "The [foreign fighters] came here to die," said Sergeant Chuck Hurley, commander of the team that battled the insurgents in the one-story house in Ubaydi, 25 kilometers from the Syrian border. "They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope," he said. "All they wanted was to take us with them." The reason the insurgents are so effective is because they firmly believe in their cause, and believe it worth dying for. The Army, and the administration, would do well to take note of this.

Free Traders Against CAFTA

| Fri May 13, 2005 3:29 PM EDT

E.J. Dionne reports today on growing opposition to CAFTA from the normally trade-friendly centrist Democrats. Petty politics? Hardly. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who values freer trade should oppose CAFTA. Just listen to Adam Smith (D-WA):

"There has always been a certain attitude among some economists and trade advocates that the issue is simply trade: Reduce the barriers and move forward," Smith says. "What we've discovered in the last 10 or 15 years is that, yes, that's a part of it, but if you want to reduce poverty and move people to the middle class, you need more than that. You need an emphasis on workers' rights. A balance must be struck between the short-term needs of business and the needs of workers."

Quite so. Look, on balance, lower trade barriers are a good thing for the economy as a whole. Most economists will agree to that. I'll agree to that. But economic upheavals still create clear winners and losers, and unless the government can cushion the blows for those who are hurt by globalization—through things like universal health care, unemployment assistance, or worker retraining—then long-term support for any sort of trade agenda will collapse. If you look at the latest Pew polling data here, there are only two voter groups that take an unabashedly positive view of trade: liberals (50 percent think trade agreements are good for the U.S.) and "upbeats," or those who are generally optimistic about the economy (59 percent). That's a fragile pro-trade coalition, and it's clear that opposition only grows louder among workers who think the economy is doing poorly.

Now there are other reasons to oppose CAFTA too—from the way it guts labor standards in Central America to its protectionist handouts for pharmaceutical companies—but Rep. Smith gets at a big one. Allowing the White House to push a trade agenda free of worker assistance, while the Bush administration continues to gut trade adjustment assistance, will only fuel popular resentment against trade, and in the long run, make it that much harder to move public opinion away from protectionist sentiment.