2009 - %3, April

Cap and Trade

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 12:51 PM PDT
The Waxman-Markey climate bill was released yesterday, and if Joe Romm gives it a B+ I'm loathe to be pessimistic about it.  But I am.  It's true that the bill's targets for CO2 reduction are a little more aggressive than the ones Barack Obama campaigned on, but it also includes two provisions that are pretty discouraging.  First, their cap-and-trade program allows a lot of offsets: two billion tons in all, which allows companies to pollute away as long as they "offset" their carbon emissions somewhere else.  In theory, this is fine, but in practice it's an invitation to abuse, substituting purely fictional reductions for real ones.  Second, it allocates a portion of the emission credits directly to affected industries instead of auctioning 100% of them.  This is yet another invitation to abuse.

It's possible, of course, that both of these things can be beaten into submission with the proper oversight and regulation.  But what are the odds?  Ezra Klein anticipates my reaction here:

What concerns me is that it's not clear how it gets better. Waxman and Markey probably represent the leftmost edge of the possible. They're aggressively liberal, terrifically informed legislators who get the moral urgency of climate change and possess the intellectual firepower to grasp the necessary scale of the response. If this is as far as they felt able to go on an opening bid, it's hard to see the legislative pathway that strengthens, rather than weakens, the legislation.

A bill that started out with no offsets and no allocation might eventually end up with offsets and allocation.  But what happens to a bill that caves in on these issues right at the start?  It gets even worse as it wends its way through the sausage factory, that's what.

As Ezra says, Markey and Waxman are as good as they come on this stuff, and if they don't believe that a clean bill stands a chance even as an opening bid, they're probably right.  And God knows, making the perfect the enemy of the good and getting nothing done at all is practically a liberal art form.  Passing this bill in some form or another is certainly way better than passing nothing.

But still.  It's hard not to be a little let down by this.  If this is the best we can do, Bangladesh better get used to being a permanent swamp.

UPDATE: Dave Roberts notes that this is a b-i-i-i-i-g bill, combining a potentially unpopular cap-and-trade program with a tremendous amount of other stuff: "The fact is, doing these pieces separately would mean three, four, possibly five bruising legislative battles, culminating in a battle over cap-and-trade that, in my estimation, simply can't be won on its own in this Senate....So they've decided, uncharacteristically for Democrats, to double down. They are piling all this stuff into one big-ticket, high-profile, must-pass bill....There is now a single point of focus, a put-up-or-shut-up moment. Anyone who wants to transition to a green economy or get the country off foreign oil or prevent global warming knows what to get behind. If nothing else, there will be no doubt by next year whether we're serious about this sh*t."

True, that.  My reservations aside, this bill is the best thing we've seen on the energy front in a long, long time.  I just wish it were even better, that's all.  A guy can dream, can't he?

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With Money Flying Around, Lobbying Registrations Soar

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 12:21 PM PDT

Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation did some digging:

Lobbying firms and special interests have filed nearly 1,700 new registration forms so far in the first quarter of 2009, a review of lobbying disclosure forms available online at the Senate Office of Public Records shows. As the federal government pumps up spending and intervenes in the troubled financial markets, K Street firms appear to have had no shortage of new business....

Governments are also scrambling for a piece of the action: 134 state, municipal, county and local government entities--ranging from the Office of Policy Management of the state of Connecticut to the Duneland School System in Chesterton, Ind....

President Obama has tried to make Washington more hostile to lobbyists, but with all the money flying around these days, it looks like it's still a good time to be on K Street.

Obama's Message to Netanyahu

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:54 AM PDT

From President Barack Obama's March 24 press conference:

Question: Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister [Benyamin Netanyahu] who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?

Obama: It's not easier than it was, but I think it's just as necessary.

A statement put out by the White House on April 1:

The President spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu today. The President congratulated the Prime Minister after his swearing-in yesterday, and reaffirmed the United States' steadfast commitment to Israel and its security. The President said he looked forward to working closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to address issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Arab-Israeli peace.

A slight change in tone, isn't it? But that's to be expected. Official pronouncments often do not match less-guarded statements. But I wonder if two discussed Obama's press conference comment--and whether Obama sent Netanyahu a message any more pointed than the congrats described above.

The Republican "Budget"

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 10:59 AM PDT
I won't even pretend that I understand most of the alternative budget unveiled today by House Republicans.  The gist of it, however, is the classic, time-tested approach taken by "fiscal conservatives" who are too gutless to propose actual, concrete spending cuts: an across-the-board spending freeze.  (Except for the Pentagon, natch, because they're such paragons of efficient procurement.)  That way they can release a 53-page document without taking the political risk of naming an actual program that will get cut.

Even by those standards, though, the section on Social Security is a masterpiece.  Here's the nut of their proposal:

Without reform, [the Social Security] Trust Fund will reach exhaustion in 2041; as a result, future retirees face across-the-board benefit cuts of up to 22 percent in that year....To head off these severe consequences, the budget creates a trigger in Social Security to help extend the program’s viability....The recommendation includes:

• Reducing the 15-percent Primary Insurance Amount bracket by 0.25 percentage points per year, from the date at which SSA finds it cannot meet scheduled benefits within 5 years

• Phasing in the proposal. Because the Trust Fund currently is expected to reach exhaustion by 2041, this provision would not arise until 2036. It would not affect those at or near retirement, and no savings in Social Security are assumed in the budget.

That's it?  Seriously?  They claim Social Security is going bankrupt and their proposal is to reduce PIA by 0.25% per year starting in 2036?  This takes gutlessness to a whole new level.

Later on, it turns out, they drop the mask and admit that this is nothing more than a proposal designed to "begin a process" that will eventually "move toward a consensus for saving and strengthening Social Security."  That's all very New-Agey, but what happened to hard-nosed fiscal rectitude?  Where are the private accounts, the means testing, and the increased age requirements?  Why aren't Republicans standing tall and sticking to their conservative roots on this stuff?  Where's the conviction, guys?

In other news, the Republican budget also proposes privatizing Medicare and putting in place a bunch of tax cuts for the rich, including (of course) temporary elimination of the capital gains tax.  That's bold, innovative thinking.  I'm sure Rush and Sean will be drooling.

Who Runs Pakistan?

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 10:01 AM PDT
So who really runs Pakistan these days?  Foreign Affairs sponsored a roundtable of experts that produced this rollicking, contentious clash of opinions:

Sumit Ganguly: Is there any doubt about that? The army, for all practical purposes, has been and remains in charge....Shaun Gregory: I agree with Sumit on this. The civilian government is very weak. The Pakistani army retains de facto control of foreign policy, defense policy, internal security, and nuclear policy, and will defend its expanded economic interests....Ashley Tellis: Sumit has it dead-on. The army rules on all the critical issues important to it: the nuclear program, the budget, security policy, relations with key foreign partners....Aqil Shah: The military has withdrawn from exercising direct government power by passing the baton to elected civilians, as it has done several times in the past, but it would be naive to expect it to loosen its control over what it sees as its legitimate "structural" missions [...] Once the army chief signs off on a policy, the costs of disobedience can be prohibitively high....Stephen Cohen: The army cannot govern Pakistan but won't let anyone else govern it either. It's a chicken-egg situation, worsened by the total collapse of the economy and the withering away of state institutions.

Hmmm.  Reading between the lines, then, the answer is "the Pakistani army"?  Right?  So, to echo Freud, what does the army want?  Aqil Shah again:

Any desire to deal firmly with cross-border militancy is trumped by the military's perceived need to retain its ties to this or that militant group in order to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. The army continues to fear that the United States could simply lose interest in Afghanistan once it captures the senior leadership of al Qaeda (as Washington did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan), leaving Pakistan exposed to Indian (and Russian) "encirclement".

....There appears to be a pervasive belief in the army, among both mid-level and senior officers, that the United States and India are destabilizing FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the rest of the country as a prelude to depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. Officers who have served in FATA have told me that they face a U.S.-Indian combined offensive and that the local Taliban receive their funds from across the border. The army might inculcate such beliefs in order to motivate its soldiers, but they also connect to the military's larger worldview. For the generals, the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal is proof of an evolving Indo-U.S., or even Indo-U.S.-Israeli, strategic alliance — not to mention American duplicity.

This is a point that Matt Yglesias is fond of making, and for good reason: we tend to think that foreign policy everywhere is focused on the United States, but it ain't so.  Pakistan obviously cares a lot about its relationship with America, but it cares a whole lot more about its relationships with India, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, which are right on their doorstep and are never going away.

Stevens Walks

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 9:12 AM PDT
Prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case will apparently allow Stevens to go free:

The Justice Department filed court papers this morning asking a federal judge to toss out the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) on corruption charges.

....In a statement, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he and other Justice lawyers had reviewed the case and "concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial."

...."The Department's Office of Professional Responsibility will conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter," he added. "This does not mean or imply that any determination has been made about the conduct of those attorneys who handled the investigation and trial of this case."

It's a shame that Stevens is getting off, since the evidence very strongly suggests that he was guilty.  But misconduct by federal prosecutors is far too widespread, and it stays that way because it's almost never punished by anything more than a tonguelashing.  Good for Holder for sending a message that he takes it more seriously than that.

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Taking Sides on the Death of Expertise

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:50 AM PDT

I've written before about the death of real expertise in Washington -- this nagging sense that if every learned person is pushing an agenda, and if every lawmaker listens exclusively to those learned persons that he or she already agrees with, policy debates will never seek out best solutions but instead necessarily devolve into partisan bickering matches. I'm not saying everyone must embrace bipartisanship and trend to the middle to find solutions that partially satisfy everyone (i.e. High Broderism). I'm saying that every once in a while, conservatives ought to be able to look at hard data and discern that what has typically been considered a Democratic policy solution to a particular problem works best to resolve that problem, and thus accept and vote for it. Liberals ought to do the same. And experts ought to be able to guide lawmakers to these conclusions, instead of always entrenching them further in their beliefs.

Now, all of that said, it is clear that Republicans have done more to bastardize the idea of expertise than Democrats. The most obvious example of this is global warming, where conservatives have spent over a decade not just ignoring a scientific consensus, but manufacturing scientific uncertainty in order to muddle public opinion on the issue. Scientific expertise -- from truly unbiased government institutions like NASA, NOAA, the EPA, etc. -- has long been ignored by a conservative movement that sees science at odds with business.

But it goes further. Conservatives have a built-in ideological reason for opposing expertise on all subjects, not just science and the environment. They fundamentally do not believe government should play an active role in Americans' lives. That has ramifications everywhere. If you believe that, you don't look for a way to manage the financial sector that protects investors, homeowners, and others who have a stake in Wall Street; you promote deregulation. You don't listen to career FDA employees who doubt the efficacy or safety of certain drugs; you push pharmaceuticals to market. And you slash budgets at places where federal employees develop expertise so that they can study the atmosphere, or keep our water clean, or prevent fraud in federal contracts and grants.

David Frum, who is emerging as the conservative movement's most prominent internal critic, understands this. A hands-off approach to government necessarily entails a denigration and depreciation of expertise. From the National Post:

Travel to Cuba

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:47 AM PDT
A sliver of good news out of Congress:

A bipartisan group of senators predicted Tuesday that Congress was ready to pass legislation to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

....Sponsors said the bill would free Americans to travel to the one place in the world they can't go and encourage Cubans to push for democratic reforms by exposing them to new people and information.

The trade embargo against Cuba has long outlived whatever usefulness it might have had.  It accomplishes nothing and has turned us into an international joke.  Still, it's well within the bounds of normal international relations.  I don't like it, but it's not fundamentally antidemocratic or an assault on basic freedoms.

The travel ban has always been in a separate class.  Autocracies and dictatorships control the movements of their subjects, but free citizens of a liberal democracy should be able to travel wherever they want. So whatever happens with the trade embargo, removing the travel ban should be a no-brainer.  This is America, not North Korea.

No Effective Oversight for $3 Trillion in Bailout Funds

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:40 AM PDT
On Tueday, three government watchdogs testified about TARP and other government bailout programs before the Senate finance committee. They offered some profoundly troubling observations about the government's inability to monitor and oversee effectively the spending (and lending) of nearly $3 trillion in bailout funds. It's a bit surprising that their testimony received about 1 percent of the media attention given to those AIG bonuses (a paltry $165 million) and sparked about 1 percent (or less) of the public outrage generated by those same bonuses. But I was invited to talk about the testimony with David Shuster on MSNBC:
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

More Contracts, More Fraud, Less Scrutiny

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:20 AM PDT
The Bush administration presided over explosive growth in defense-related contracting. Part of it was the natural result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; part of it was ideology and a deeply held belief that anything government can do the private sector can do better and cheaper. And maybe so. I won't argue it here. But whatever your views on the role of private companies in military operations, there's little question that the flurry of Pentagon contracts issued since 9/11 has, in numerous instances, led to gross abuse and corruption by companies that took advantage of weak regulation and a Congress that, despite much breathless posturing, has still failed to do much to bring things under control. The numbers speak for themselves. As the Pentagon doubled its contracting budget, the number of criminal investigations for contract fraud declined dramatically. According to a report released today by the Center for Public Integrity:
Defense contracting grew from about $200 billion in fiscal year 1993 at the start of the Clinton presidency to nearly $400 billion in FY 2008 at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration (1993 dollars adjusted for inflation to 2008 dollars). But Defense Department investigators during the Bush administration sent 76 percent fewer contracting fraud and corruption cases to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution than were referred under Clinton, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
“No one is minding the store,” said William G. Dupree, a former director of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), which investigates contracting fraud. “Someone needs to address that.”
The FBI, which is also involved in such probes, sent 55 percent fewer government-wide contracting fraud and corruption cases to prosecutors for the same time periods reviewed. These cases cut across all agencies, but the Defense Department was responsible for more than 65 percent of federal contracting during the Bush administration. And FBI statistics requested by the Center focusing just on the Pentagon document a similar trend. In 2001, the Bureau referred 213 Defense Department procurement fraud cases to Justice Department prosecutors; by 2008, the total had fallen to 86.