Florida Senator Bill Nelson had this to say on Good Morning America today:

"The president’s instincts are right in the mainstream of America. I think he’s allowed the left wing pull him too much in that direction. But he always comes back into the center."

This is one of those things that makes me feel like I live not just on a different coast than the Washingtonocracy, but on a different planet. My take on Obama for quite a while has been exactly the opposite of Nelson's: I think one of his big problems is that he considers it a grave character defect to ever openly throw a bone to the left. Throwing those bones — even smallish, symbolic ones — would have done him an immense amount of good during his first year, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Maybe a firm statement about DADT even if action didn't come until later. Or a serious effort to claw back the AIG bonuses even if it didn't work. Or — obviously — full-throated support of the public option even if it eventually got killed by Joe Lieberman. But none of that happened. I've come to the conclusion that he's so hypersensitive to accusations of "pandering to the left" that he'll do almost anything to avoid them.

But I'm a partisan liberal, so maybe I'm just blind to all the bone throwing he's done. Feel free to set me straight in comments.

K Street's federal lobbying reports were due last week, and OpenSecrets is back with some initial numbers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent the most on lobbying federal lawmakers, increasing its spending by 58% from 2008 as it stepped up efforts to defeat climate change and health care legislation. $79.2 million—more than half of its $144.5 million in 2009 lobbying expenditures—were made in the final three months of the year.

The health care debate also intensified lobbying efforts. PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group, spent $26 million and Pfizer, Amgen, and Eli Lilly spent a combined $45 million. That's a lot of money, and so far it seems to have worked. The reform bill has stalled with the election of senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Senator Chris Dodd recently proposed taking a break from the issue. While insurance and pharmacutical companies increased their lobbying bucks, AARP dropped its spending by nearly 25% and SEIU increased its lobbying dollars only modestly, by 8% (about $200,000).

Energy companies also poured money into lobbying as Congress dithered over cap-and-trade legislation. From 2008 to 2009, Chevron upped spending by 60%, ConocoPhillips by 114%, and BP by 53%.

The OpenSecrets report doesn't delve into lobbying numbers from the big banks, but The Hill points out that during the financial crisis in 2009, eight of the nation's largest banks spent nearly $26 million lobbying lawmakers. On the whole, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup decreased or maintained their lobbying sums from 2008 to 2009. Bank of America, however, began "pouring in more money" during the fourth quarter, reports McClatchy. Lobbying sums from the financial services sector are only expected to grow as industry groups intensify their opposition to impending  financial regulation.

On Friday, former Bush adviser Elliott Abrams took to the Washington Post op-ed page to urge the international community to open its doors to a "Haitian diaspora." Mass emigration could help stabilize the earthquake-ravaged country, Abrams argued. But conservative commentors bred on NIMBY fervor have responded to Abrams' piece with racist quips (blacks in the US already commit rape, assault and murder at a per capita rate that is over 7 times that of non-blacks) and worries about the cost of immigration (The democrats are so stupid. Real unemployment is over 20%). All this despite the fact that Abrams is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who served under Reagan and Bush. The full column is available here. Here are the highlights:

"Rebuilding" and "recovery" would merely take Haiti, this hemisphere's poorest country, back to where it stood before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Surely, our goal is to do better[!!!] We must increase aid but also allow Haitians to help themselves, and there is no way they can do that sitting in a devastated nation. A substantial number of Haitians must be allowed to move to richer countries—including ours.

Haiti has approximately 9 million citizens, and 1 million to 2 million Haitians live outside their country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half a million people born in Haiti live in the United States, and estimates put several hundred thousand in Canada and as many as 100,000 in France. Those migrants send home $1.9 billion in remittances—double the official aid flows and equal to 30 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product.

A larger Haitian diaspora would be a far better base for the country's economic future than aid pledges that may or may not be met. If several hundred thousand more Haitians were able to migrate, those Dominican, Honduran or Salvadoran numbers suggest that remittances to Haiti would give its economy a huge and continuing jolt.

This would require Canada, France and the United States—the First World countries with the largest Haitian diaspora communities—to adopt a different and more liberal immigration policy toward Haiti. Canada has already stepped up, expediting immigration applications from Haitians with family members living there. Canada's immigration minister noted that "we anticipate there will be a number of new applications, which we will treat on a priority basis."

Cue the relief. Abrams offers a proposal for rebuilding Haiti that isn’t all awash in an obstacle course of dehumanizing logisitics. Yes, the U.S. economy is mired in debt and unemployment is high, but people are dying and are in need of international help. Let the Haitians come.

Ever since its contract employee Jamie Leigh Jones went public with allegations that in 2005, she was drugged and gang raped by some of her co-workers in Iraq and then detained in a storage container, KBR/Halliburton has fought her efforts to sue in a public courtroom. Jones had been forced to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement as part of her employment contract, which required her to bring any work-related claims before a private arbitrator hired by KBR rather than a jury. Jones fought the agreement and in September, prevailed in one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country. Her story persuaded Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to pass legislation to ban defense contractors from using arbitration agreements in cases of sexual assault.

But last week, KBR signaled its intention to continue fighting Jones, no matter how bad it makes the company look. On Jan. 19, it petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing Jones to press her case in a civil court rather than in arbitration. Among its many arguments in favor of a high court hearing: that Jones is a relentless self-promoter who has "sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress." In its petition, KBR is clearly miffed about the Franken Amendment, which it credits Jones with getting passed. KBR also suggests that much of Jones' story is fabricated. The company says in a footnote, "Many, if not all, of her allegations against the KBR Defenandants are demonstrably false. The KBR Defendants intend to vigorously contest Jones's allegations and show that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable."

It's a curious argument to make in a petition asking to keep the case proceedings confidential (a benefit of mandatory arbitration that KBR claims many assault victims really appreciate). After all, if KBR has been wrongly accused in such public forums as Congress and the media, wouldn't it be better off fighting the charges someplace it could be publicly vindicated? And if Jones' story is really false, why has KBR waited five years to respond? KBR must be pretty worried that lots of other women are getting in line to sue now that Jones has made it easier for them, a potentially expensive disaster. Threatening to disparage an alleged rape victims seems more scare tactic rather than good legal strategy. But KBR's legal strategy has been pretty loony from the get-go. Rather than try to defend an indefensible arbitration system in a case with a compelling victim, KBR would have done far better to simply pay Jones to shut up and go away a long time ago, before she won Al Franken's heart. At this point, even if it wins the court battle, the company is going to lose the PR fight.


In the video below, Linda McMahon, the WWE CEO who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Connecticut, offers a remarkably candid explanation for her history of political contributions to Democrats:

In the video, McMahon explains that she donated to Democrats not because she supported their political agenda, but because she wanted to promote the interests of her business. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of candidates accepting donations made out of pure self-interest, because we tend to want campaign contributions to be premised on genuine support for a politician and/or his or her political positions. This also gets at the heart of the problem with the recent Supreme Court decision opening up elections to unlimited amounts of corporate money.

National Journal compiled the stunning graph below from the lobbying expenditures for the fourth quarter of 2009, which were submitted last week. The groups that traditionally devote the most money to lobbying on health care spent roughly the same as they did in 2008. But there was one major exception: the US Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber dropped a total of $123.3 million on lobbying in 2009, compared to $62.3 million in 2008. Of course, it's important to note that the Chamber wasn't just lobbying on health care. They've been actively campaigning against a number of key issues on the Democratic agenda this year, including climate change legislation, financial reform, and the Employee Free Choice Act. But still, the image is impressive:

From Sen. Jim DeMint (R–Wingnuttia), praising the Citizens United decision that allows big corporations to directly contribute to political campaigns:

I think people should be able to come together in associations and organizations and spend money to get their message out.  I think that's going to promote the democratic process, instead of really what we've got now, is where you essentially give the labor unions carte blanche over our system, grassroots as well as spending.

Um, yeah. We really need to do something about the skyrocketing power of labor unions in American life. Especially after that economic meltdown they caused in 2008. You'd think people would learn.

Ross Douthat, Bill Kristol's replacement as one of the New York Times' resident conservative columnists, is probably tired of the word "wunderkind" and phrases like "youngest op-ed columnist the paper had ever hired."1  But he gets 'em both anyway in a profile by Mark Oppenheimer in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I guess it comes with the territory. In any case, here he takes a crack at explaining how he feels about abortion:

He began with the boilerplate position: "It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother." He went on, however, to say such a ban would require "radical experimentation with the welfare state" and likely "a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another," plus orphanages and an expanded "network of crisis pregnancy centers." Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as "it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree...it's like seventh-degree murder or something."

"But," he quickly noted, "those things aren't on the table."

Actually, that's not bad for a guy who's pretty close to an abortion absolutist. "Seventh-degree murder" is about as good an excuse for not jailing abortionists as I've heard. I still don't get the rape and incest exception, though. If it's murder, why is it OK to murder children born of rape or incest?

Anyway, Ross has led an interesting life and Oppenheimer's piece is a good read. Check it out.

1OK, I don't actually know if he is. But if it were me, I would be.

Climate skeptics like to say that there's still plenty of room for debate over the science of global warming. When it comes to the phenomenon itself, they're wrong: Scientific consensus solidly affirms the fact that the planet is warming, largely thanks to human activity. We know that the glaciers are still melting and that the last decade was warmest on record. But it's true that there are still some major holes in the science. The latest issue of Nature identifies four key areas where much more research is needed:

Regional climate forecasts: Most climate modeling is geared toward assessing global effects of rising temperatures, and aren't as well suited for looking at local and regional variability and impacts. Planning for climate adaptation requires better understanding of those local differences, making it crucial to develop better tools for assessing them.

Precipitation forecasts: Rising global temperatures are expected to increase evaporation and speed up the global hydrological cycle, which will increase droughts in subtropical areas and precipitation in areas of higher latitudes. But models are bad at predicting much more than that, and they don't do a very good job of even accounting for how much precipitation patterns have already changed.

Aerosols: Another major uncertainty in climate science are airborne liquid and solid particles–things like sulphates, black carbon, sea salt and dust. It's not clear how and to what extent they influence temperature and rainfall, in large part because there's not that much data about what exactly is floating around in our atmosphere. The general understanding is that the aerosols cool the climate by blocking sunlight, but some aerosols like black carbon actually absorb sunlight and increase warming. Thus, the net effect is unclear.

Palaeoclimate data: There aren't reliable thermometer records prior to 1850, so scientists must look to other sources of evidence on historical temperatures, like tree rings, sediment in lakes, stalagmites, and glacial movement. While the preponderance of the evidence across those data sources shows clear warming trends, there remains a lively debate about the appropriate use and interpretation of proxies.

The Nature paper notes that it is extremely difficult for scientists to discuss these areas when they don't yet have the right tools. The climate change denial machine—which takes any level of uncertainty as an excuse to dismiss climate change entirely—has made it nearly impossible for scientists to discuss uncertainties in what is already a complex and highly technical field. And that machine is actively undermining scientists' ability to address these holes in the research. "This climate of suspicion we're working in is insane," said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "It's drowning our ability to soberly communicate gaps in our science."

Unopinionated Media

One of my pet peeves is the idea that the news reporting of the New York Times, the Washington Post, et. al. is utterly free of bias or opinion. That attitude—which you saw in Times reporter Peter Baker's complaints about the addition of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post to the White House print pool—is just infuriating. Even a casual perusal of the Times or the Post (or, for that matter, the more right-leaning Wall Street Journal) will turn up examples of reporters and/or editors injecting their own thoughts or opinions into stories. And even the cleanest of stories is still affected by the reporter's decisions: who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources. Anyway, today's example is a story in the Times about Obama's plans for his State of the Union address, which is scheduled for Wednesday. Describing the administration's new economic recovery proposals, the reporter writes:

Such programs are, notably, much less far-reaching than Mr. Obama’s expansive first-year agenda of passing an economic recovery package, bailing out the auto industry, overhauling the health care system, passing energy legislation and imposing tough new restrictions on banks. That agenda has left him vulnerable to criticism that he is using the government to remake every aspect of American society.

I added the emphasis there, but that sentence sticks out anyway. It's hilariously broad—"every" aspect of American society? It's totally unattached to any sourcing or evidence. Who are these critics? Do they have names? If "Republicans" or "Tea Party activists" are claiming that Obama is using government to remake American society, readers should know that. Just saying that Obama is "vulnerable to criticism" without saying where that criticism is coming from gives the claim a credibility it doesn't deserve. Does America society seem "remade" to you?

The entire article is problematic as "straight news" because the reporter is arguing that Obama is moderating his policy positions to appeal to the political center. Never mind that White House officials explicitly deny this premise. (White House officials have been known to lie, of course.) The bottom line is that the reporter is making a call about what the truth of the matter is. Breaking news: that's an opinion. Just because I happen to think it's a correct opinion doesn't make it a fact. The article should have had an "analysis" tag. Or maybe the Times should drop the act and just admit that it's doing the same thing that TPM is—just with a centrist bias instead of a liberal one.