2009 - %3, September

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 24, 2009

Thu Sep. 24, 2009 8:24 AM EDT

U.S. Army Soldiers wait in the early morning for two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to pick them and bring them to a nearby town to conduct a patrol in Taji, Iraq, Sept. 18, 2009. The Soldiers are assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division's Company F, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Travis Zielinski.)

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Need To Read: September 24, 2009

Thu Sep. 24, 2009 7:41 AM EDT

Today's must-reads jumped out of the pot:

  • HIV Vaccine Shows Promise (Bloomberg)
  • David Paterson Opens Up (NYT)
  • Bill McKibben: Is Obama Even Trying on Climate? (MoJo)
  • Glenn Beck: Frog Murderer (MoJo)
  • Someone In Creigh Deeds' Campaign Thinks Honesty Is The Best Policy (WaPo)
  • Clinton Compared Gore to Mussolini? (MoJo)
  • How Richard Posner Became A Keynesian (The New Republic)
  • The Spy Who Loved Hamas (MoJo)
  • Jack Shafer: "Sometimes it takes an outsider like Andrew Breitbart to show the press corps the way." (Slate)
  • Things That Make Claire McCaskill's Head "Pop Off" (MoJo)
  • Obama Echoes Bush on State Secrets? (MoJo)
  • Sen. Inhofe's Climate Sceptic Road Show (MoJo)

Follow me! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does awesome new MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

 

Score One for Predatory Lenders

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

The Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the proposed regulatory body that would shield Americans from risky loans, predatory bank fees, and other sneaky financial practices, looks like it's going to die a slow, painful death. Yesterday, lawmakers and Obama administration officials agreed to cut a major provision from the legislation that would create the agency by removing a provision that would have required banks and other financial institutions to start offering "plain vanilla" products to consumers. (A "plain vanilla" mortgage, for instance, would include a fixed interest rate and a stable term of, say, 30 years.) Now, that provision is gone. "There has been a lot of concern that if you invest the government with the ability to decide what’s appropriate here and there, that will lead to less competition and choice," said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

This move bodes poorly not just for the future of the CFPA but financial regulation in general. The plain-vanilla provision would have protected consumers from the kinds of deceptive financial products, such as adjustable rate mortgages, that precipitated the current economic mess, as well as predatory products like credit cards loaded with hidden fees. It wouldn't have gotten rid of these financial products, so consumers who wanted them would still have to do their own due diligence. But the plain-vanilla provision could have helped those consumers who aren't financially savvy enough to handle an option ARM or simply don't have the stomach to wade through the fine print of a mortgage contract.

Gutting plain vanilla marks a victory for big business and their allies in Congress, who see it as a major step toward to grounding the CFPA altogether. The US Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobby, has shown it will stop at nothing to "kill the bill"—and it has the firepower to do just that, having spent $23 million this year on lobbying (almost twice as much as the second-ranked organization). And the CFPA doesn't have a lot of friends among the regulators, either. The FDIC and the Fed don’t want the CFPA because it would encroach on their turf and steal some of their regulatory thunder.

To be sure, we need the CFPA, which would provide crucial consumer protection that the financial meltdown showed to be glaringly absent. But it's the clear the agency, which is backed by Congressional Oversight Panel chair Elizabeth Warren, now faces a staggeringly uphill battle. And even if it does make it into law, the agency might be stripped down to the point where it's toothless and useless, if this latest cut is any indication.

GOP Health Reform Tactic: Rich Vs. Poor

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

By digging in their heels and turning the health care battle into an all-out attack on Obama, the Republicans are engaging in a classic class war that pits the rich against the poor. In case you missed it, an NPR report illustrates the point:

[O]f the 100 congressional districts with the highest uninsured rates, 53 are represented either by Republican lawmakers—who are fighting the Obama administration’s attempt to overhaul the health care system—or by Blue Dog Democrats — conservative Democrats who have slowed down and diluted the overhaul proposals…

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 17 percent of Americans under age 65 now go without health insurance. It’s a basic truth of political analysis that low-income residents—that is, those most likely to be uninsured—are less likely than middle-class people to attend town meetings and less likely to vote. To state the obvious, the poor are also less likely to make campaign contributions. Meanwhile, health care corporations and professional organizations have actively engaged the Blue Dogs. So far this year, the Blue Dogs’ political action committee has received $301,500 from health care and health insurance PACs.


Eco-News Roundup: Thursday September 24

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Stories and news from our blogs and elsewhere you might have missed.

Power of Fear: Just fear of medical malpractice lawsuits costs $60 billion a year.

The Problem With Frogs: Despite climate change metaphors, they will jump out when the water gets hot. Us, not so much.

European Education: If we can learn from the EU's cap-and-trade system, so much the better.

Chart of the Day: Number of Americans without insurance are increasing, as is cost of care.

Nuclear Shift: Obama's address spurred hopes his nuclear policy will oppose Bush's.

Girl Anatomy: Liv dolls are more anatomically correct than Barbies, but still sexist.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 12:38 AM EDT

From Noah Shachtman, summing up Robert Gates's influence on the Pentagon so far:

After three years under Gates, the Defense Department is finally learning the right lesson: You wage war with the enemies you have, not the ones you wish you had.

In other words, quit obsessing about theoretical future world wars with China or Russia and figure out how to win today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instead.  The rest of Noah's profile of Gates is good too.

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The Inhofe Climate Skeptic Roadshow

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 9:48 PM EDT

As world leaders gathered in New York this week for a major United Nations summit on climate change, back in Washington, leading Senate global warming skeptic James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has been hard at work lining up a climate "truth squad" to travel to treaty negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

Inhofe told the National Review Online that his squad (he has not yet named any participants) will make it clear to world leaders that although the House passed the Waxman-Markey bill and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will probably approve a bill as well, the United States Congress isn't going to pass climate legislation anytime soon—no way, no how. The senator, famous for his claim that global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," took a similar group of skeptics to climate change negotiations in Milan, Italy in 2003. "I was the outcast at that time," Inhofe told NRO. "Now, I want to make sure that those attending the Copenhagen conference know what is really happening in the United States Senate."

Murkowski Moves to Thwart EPA Regulation of Emissions

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 8:50 PM EDT

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced an amendment on Wednesday that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, saying such a course of action could result in an "economic train wreck."

Murkowski’s amendment would block the EPA from creating regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources—like power plants, refineries, and manufacturers—for another year, though the agency could continue work on regulating emissions from automobiles. Murkowski says the "timeout" is needed "in order to give Congress time to act on legislation that would address climate change responsibly, hopefully with as little economic impact as possible."

ACORN Strikes Back

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 8:30 PM EDT

ACORN has filed a lawsuit against James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, the two undercover filmmakers who taped ACORN workers providing advice about how to smuggle underage sex workers into the country from El Salvador:

The lawsuit asserts that neither O'Keefe nor Giles obtained consent from ACORN workers for videotaping them, as state law requires.

ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis told reporters in a conference call that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, does not support criminal activity and believes the filmmakers should have obeyed Maryland laws.

Points for chutzpah, I guess, but this is a bad idea on so many levels it hurts just to think about it.  All they're doing is extending the news cycle on this whole debacle, making fools of themselves with transparently petty arguments, and just generally showing less common sense than your average mafia don caught on a 60 Minutes sting.  At this point, ACORN needs to take their lumps, finish their internal investigation, and clean up their act.  In the meantime, the least they can do is avoid handing the Glenn Beck crowd free additional ammunition.  Fair or not, shooting the messenger isn't helping their cause.

Obama Echoes Bush on State Secrets?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

Is "the most transparent administration ever" echoing the Bush administration's position on a key transparency provision?

On Wednesday, the Justice Department released new guidelines for how it will invoke the State Secrets privilege, a doctrine that allows the government to exclude information from legal cases when it believes its release could threaten national security. But the new rules are weak reforms to the way the doctrine was used during the Bush years, when it was invoked to shield government torture, detention, and rendition policies from outside scrutiny and frequently used to dismiss entire cases.

The new rules require the DOJ "be satisfied" that it has evidence for its assertion of the privilege, run its decision by an internal committee and the Attorney General, and consider turning over evidence of government wrongdoing to agency inspector generals when state secrets might otherwise "preclude the case from going forward." But the executive branch retains the power to make the most important decisions about whether, when, and how it uses the privilege. That has raised speculation that the new rules may be an attempt to preempt legislation offered by three prominent Democrats that would totally overhaul the use of the doctrine.

"It seems intended to undercut and preempt legislation that would address the broader structural problem," with the State Secrets claim, said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney who represented five rendition victims in a lawsuit against a Boeing subsidiary that allegedly served as the CIA's travel agent for the agency's extraordinary rendition program. (At one point their case was dismissed because the Bush administration claimed the State Secrets privilege.) Now, Wizner said, "The same executive branch that engages in torture and illegal surveillance and extraordinary rendition can, on the basis of an affidavit from the perpretatror himself, have a case thrown out."

The Democrats proposing the State Secrets reform, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold in the Senate and New York's Jerrold Nadler in the House, each released statements Wednesday responding to the White House's move. Leahy said the rules marked "progress," but worried that they did not go far enough. "I remain especially concerned with ensuring that the government make a substantial evidentiary showing to a federal judge in asserting the privilege," he said, and expressed a hope that the administration would "work with Congress to establish this requirement." Feingold said the new measure was "disappointing, because it still amounts to an approach of 'just trust us.'" Nadler also criticized the move, warning that "these reforms fall short of what is necessary": 

We must not understate the extent to which the abuse of the state secrets privilege poses a major threat to our system of justice. We still need legislation to guide the courts, which do not take a consistent approach to claims of state secrets. And we must ensure that all of the necessary reforms are codified into law in order to prevent any future administration from abusing the state secrets privilege.

"The heightened standard is designed in part to restore the confidence of Congress, civil liberties advocates and judges, who have criticized both the Bush White House and the Obama administration for excessive secrecy," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. But neither members of Congress nor civil liberties advocates seem particularly confident. Even if the White House does win back the confidence of judges—no sure bet, since it's been losing in one of the most important State Secrets cases, al-Haramain v. Obama—one out of three is pretty bad.

Wizner, the ACLU lawyer, said Nadler, Leahy, and Feingold were on exactly the right track. "Real legislative reform would allow judges to scrutinize the executive branch's State Secrets claims," he said. "We don't need kinder and gentler executive branch self-policing, we need genuine judicial and congressional oversight of the executive branch."