2009 - %3, April

Washington Post Scolds Itself

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

The fact that Washington Post op-ed star George Will has been accused of inaccurate reporting isn't so surprising. What is surprising is that the accuser is The Washington Post.

In a story published yesterday, WaPo writers Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan cite evidence they say "contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979."

Grist writer David Roberts notes, "I can’t think of another instance when a news story at a newspaper explicitly called out an op-ed writer in the same paper for lying, by name." The closest I can think of is when New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt publicly reproached Maureen Dowd for gender bias. But that was an opinion, not a rebuke of reporting.

The paper's decision to call out Will was no doubt difficult, but props to them for doing the right thing—even if it leads to some awkwardness around WaPo.

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Online Lobbying Disclosure -- A Big Step Forward for Transparency

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

The Sunlight Foundation has long worked to bring transparancy to the lobbying process, and yesterday the good folks there made something of a breakthrough. They've developed an online lobbying disclosure form. That may not sound important, but here's why it matters.

Currently, lobbyists file disclosure forms four times a year. They are required only to disclose who their clients are, how much they got paid, what topics or bills they worked on for each client, and whether or not they visited the House, the Senate, or the executive branch. What that means is that if a defense contractor is using a lobbyist to make sure it gets a piece of the pie in an upcoming DOD budget, the public gets no info about the specific appropriation being targeted or the lawmakers who got the full-court press. We may only find out that the contractor was lobbying at all after the budget is passed.

The online disclosure form that Sunlight has developed -- you can see a mock-up here -- changes all of that. A lobbyist can pull up this form on her BlackBerry after each lobbying contact and easily fill out a very comprehensive range of fields: date and time of the meeting; name and client for the lobbyist; name, agency, and position of the federal employee(s) lobbied; topics discussed and specific actions promoted or urged.

If every lobbyist filled out a form like this after every meeting, a group like the Sunlight Foundation could build a constantly up-to-date database of lobbying contacts that would allow the public to sort by lobbyists, clients, federal agencies, bills, topics -- any and all relevant metric by which money in politics can be overseen and rooted out. John Wonderlich, writing on Sunlight's blog, adds, "This is just the beginning. What else can you imagine tracking? Would you set up an RSS feed of all lobbying related to your interests? Would you, as an agency head, track all lobbying directed at your agency?"

Now it's just a matter of getting folks in government to see the (sun)light.

Caving on Auctions

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 2:17 PM EDT

That Washington Post reports that the Obama administration has all but caved on the principle of auctioning 100% of emission credits in a cap-and-trade system:

The Obama administration might agree to postpone auctioning off 100 percent of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas pollution, White House science adviser John P. Holdren said today, a move that would please electricity providers and manufacturers but could anger environmentalists.

...."The idea, obviously, is to end up with a bill that reflects both the thinking of Congress and the administration, a bill that the president can sign," Holdren said, adding that when it comes to a 100 percent auction, "Whether you get to start with that or get there over a period of time is something that's being discussed."

Getting there over time is what the Europeans tried, of course, and it was a disaster.  Basically, it meant nearly a decade of wasted effort until they finally got close to a 100% auction.  Blecch.  Still, at this point I suppose I'll be grateful if we put any kind of plan in place at all, since I assume the one thing we will get 100% of is Republican opposition.

Ending Privatized Medicare: A First Step

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 2:14 PM EDT

The Obama administation has taken an important first step toward reducing what are basically a set of handouts to private insurers, embedded in the Medicare system. These government subsidies to private industry enrich insurance companies at the expense of taxpayers and beneficiaries.

The particular handouts in question come in the form of subsidies to so-called Medicare Advantage plans. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday:

The federal government made good on its plan to cut 2010 payments for private Medicare plans, whittling the subsidies to health insurers sooner than the industry originally expected.

The cuts, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are slightly less severe than the 5% reduction the federal agency signaled in February, but still raise concerns about what has been a critical source of profit growth for many health insurers. Reimbursements to private insurers that administer so-called Medicare Advantage plans would fall by as much as 4% to 4.5% next year.

Even the WSJ acknowledges that “Republicans during the Bush administration pushed the plans’ extra benefits for seniors and subsidies to insurers to promote more private-sector involvement in Medicare.” 

Defense Spending Accounted For 37.3 Cents of Every Tax Dollar in 2008

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

Even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates initiates an historic review of the Pentagon's budget, recommending that many of the department's big-ticket programs be scrapped after years of mismanagement and bloat, a new report from the National Priorities Project is a useful reminder of just how bad things have gotten. The report breaks down how Washington spent a median-income family's 2008 tax dollars. The results speak for themselves: 

As taxes come due on April 15, taxpayers can take stock of how the federal government spent each 2008 income tax dollar: 37.3 cents went towards military-related spending, while environment, energy and science-related projects split 2.8 cents...

37.3 cents for military-related spending breaks down as follows: 29.4 cents for current military and war spending coupled with 7.9 cents for military-related debt. At 3.8 cents of each dollar, veterans' benefits receive similar proportions of a federal tax dollar as housing and community programs and food-related programs.

Nancy Nord: Still An Imbecile?

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 1:02 PM EDT

In 2007, congressional Democrats called for the chair of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nancy Nord, to resign after she failed to respond quickly to news of lead-tainted toys imported from China. Not only did she refuse to step down before her term expires in 2012, but she actively opposed Congress' move to double her agency's budget. In early 2008,  an exasperated Lou Dobbs, examining her record, asked, "is she as imbecilic as she appears to be as absolutely insensitive to American consumers, as absolutely lacking the judgment to run a federal agency designed and created to protect the American consumer?"

Nord managed to survive not just Dobbs' tirade but a change in administrations. But today, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson revived the "Nord must go" movement, writing to the Obama administration to demand Nord's firing for "neglect of duty." His beef? The CSPS under Nord's leadership has failed to recall or ban the import of toxic Chinese drywall that's been installed in thousands of homes across the South, particularly those built after Hurricane Katrina. The drywall has been linked to sulfide gasses that corrode electrical wiring, air conditioning units and household appliances. “The agency is doing too little, too late to help residents of Florida and other states who are reporting serious health and safety problems associated with living in homes built with tainted drywall,” he writes.

 

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Another Miracle Brought to You By America's Unions (This Time With Pirates!)

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 12:25 PM EDT

Now that the American crew members of the Maersk Alabama have retaken the ship from four Somali pirates (USA! USA! USA!), it's important to note that like all the people involved with the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, the crew members of the Maersk Alabama are union members. (Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for the blog title and the meme.) The unions in question are the Seafarers International Union, which represents 12 of the 20-person crew, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). As former safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot of Flight 1549, fought to make sure his colleagues got the training they needed to do what he did in January. And as I just heard on Fox News (and confirmed with the SIU), crew members of the Maersk Alabama received anti-piracy training from (where else?) their union. You can see an SIU member at small arms training at the union's Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in the photo to the right (more photos here). In addition to small arms training, the Hall Center offers anti-terror, basic safety, first aid, and other security-related courses.

Franken-Coleman

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Generally speaking, I don't blame Norm Coleman for doing everything he can to win his razor-close Senate race against Al Franken.  If there are legal avenues open during a recount, candidates have the right to use them.

But that's getting harder and harder to defend.  Minnesota's election procedures may not be perfect (whose are?), but there's never been any serious evidence of widespread fraud or favoritism, and Franken's lead has increased at every step.  Even Scott Johnson, a conservative Minnesota attorney, writing in National Review today, agrees.  Coleman's recount strategy may have been poor, he says, but Franken "didn’t steal the election."

Coleman has nothing left now except an equal protection claim so poorly conceived that it plainly has no chance at either the state or federal level.  In a system where votes are counted and tallied locally, there will inevitably be small differences in procedure, but Coleman has no plausible evidence that a class of voters was mistreated or that election officials were systematically biased against him.  Even conservatives are finally starting to admit that, as much as they dislike Franken, Coleman's effort has turned into little more than a shabby campaign of retribution and spite.  It's past time to let it go, guys.

Message to the Religious Right: Gay Marriage Has Nothing to Do With "Tyranny"

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

On the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart had a killer bit about the conservative commentators who are shrieking about America's descent into tyranny. His central point: they're confused; what they're experiencing isn't tyranny, it's simply the very uncomfortable experience of being in the minority. When the federal government is doing all sorts of things that you disagree with, it doesn't mean that America is becoming a fascist state. It just means you lost.

Looking at the Christian Right's response to the Vermont gay marriage legislation and the Iowa gay marriage court ruling, I can't help but feel like Stewart's wisdom applies. Heads are exploding over this thing, folks. Think Progress rounds it up.

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: "Same-sex 'marriage' is a movement driven by wealthy homosexual activists and a liberal elite determined to destroy not only the institution of marriage, but democracy as well."

Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel: "By redefining marriage, the Vermont legislature removed the cornerstone of society and the foundation of government. The consequences will rest on their shoulders and upon those passive objectors who know what to do but lack the courage to stand against this form of tyranny."

And so on. Someone needs to explain to these people that the creeping acceptance of gay rights isn't the end of democracy. It isn't the onset of tyranny. It's simply a byproduct of a society's slow crawl toward tolerance. And please, let's drop this idea that if you stand against gay rights somehow you stand with democracy and liberty. You can be a devout Christian and on the right side of progress. It's not impossible. If you stand in opposition to the expansion of rights, you're far closer to tyranny than anyone on the American left.

How to Engage With Iran

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 10:49 AM EDT

President Obama has been preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently North Korea, but his attention will soon inevitably turn to one of Washington's greatest diplomatic wild cards: Iran. A new white paper (PDF) prepared by a group of former US ambassadors and progressive foreign policy experts urges the Obama administration not to succumb to hawks pushing an unduly harsh and counterproductive stance regarding Iran. At issue is how to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In clear reference to Iraq invasion (remember those elusive WMDs Saddam was supposedly stockpiling?), the Iran Nuclear Policy Group warns, "publicly assuming the worst in the absence of evidence--and issuing an ultimatum based on that assumption--is a singularly bad idea."

The Group instead suggests a three-part approach to the problem, emphasizing reliance on facts rather than hype (a novel idea), a clear expression of US foreign policy goals in a way that leaves Iran space to manuever and save face, and "true diplomacy" that emphasizes not "the bad things that American can do to Iran but... things that the United States can withhold," namely foreign investment, diplomatic respect, and help developing Iran's oil and gas sectors.