2010 - %3, June

Still No Deficit Hawks in the GOP

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 9:07 AM PDT

On the scale of the federal budget, $18 billion is a rounding error. Literally. It's about one-half of one percent of the budget, which rounds down to zero. But a small group of moderate Republicans are threatening to vote no on financial reform because an $18 billion fee is included in the final bill.1 It's not there to punish banks or to create a slush fund for new spending. It's there solely to make the bill deficit neutral. Ryan Avent:

And yet the most moderate Republicans in the Senate are balking at the charge. Not because they disagree in any real sense with the economics of the fee. They simply won't vote for anything that looks like a tax.

This is why it's so difficult to imagine a solution to America's long-run budget crisis. It's a political impossibility to move to primary surplus on the back of spending cuts alone. Democrats are highly unlikely to win a Senate majority comfortably over 60 seats any time in the near future. And the most moderate Republicans won't vote for tax increases, even when the increase in question is a relatively small, one-off charge on big banks.

There's no room for compromise on the deficit there. Zero. The Journal story is trouble for the fate of the financial reform bill, but it should worry deficit hawks even more.

And I suppose it would worry them if there were any actual deficit hawks in the Republican Party. But there aren't, are there? There are plenty of tax-on-rich-people-and-corporations hawks, but no deficit hawks. Let's stop pretending otherwise, OK?

1Actually, I got this wrong: it's $18 billion over ten years, which works out to about .05% of the federal budget. In other words, it's really a rounding error.

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California's Dim Idea

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 8:50 AM PDT

On the off chance that you thought there was any intelligent life in California's capital, here's the latest from Sacramento:

Motorists who already feel bombarded by digital billboards, freeway advertisements and vinyl-wrapped buses say a new proposal to put ads on license plates is a bad sign. State lawmakers' flirtation with digital license plates moved another step forward Monday as the Assembly Transportation Committee voted 9-0 in favor of a feasibility study to determine if advertising revenue from millions of digital license placards would help close the state's $19.1-billion deficit.

This is surely one of the most moronic ideas in history. Just think: in the near future, California drivers could be distracted not just by digital billboards, digital phones, and digital nav systems, but by millions of blinking, flashing, scrolling digital license plates! And just to make the idea even better, there's no chance that this would have more than the most minuscule effect on the state budget. It's perfect! No wonder the feasibility study passed unanimously.

BP's Bad Science

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 8:41 AM PDT

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are pressuring BP to ditch a private contractor, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), that it hired to do public health response in the Gulf. The company, they say, has been "cited in a long line of controversial cases" in which it has botched data collection methods and supplied bad data. These bad test results, Capps and Welch say, have served to promote the "corporate interests" of CTEH's employers over the protection of public health.

One example of the "long pattern of tainted results" from the Arkansas-based consulting firm happened after a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee. Local community members and an EPA audit both caught CTEH using inaccurate monitoring procedures to survey air quality. The company was also caught using bad sampling techniques to evaluate soil contamination at a refinery spill in Chalmette, La. following Hurricane Katrina and to analyze hazardous Chinese drywall in Florida, as Energy & Environment reports.

In each of these cases, CTEH was alleged to be supplying the data that its employers wanted while falsely assuring the public that everything was OK. As Elizabeth Grossman reports, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has also been relying on monitoring data from CTEH. The company has been supplying data that finds that there are no risks of exposure to toxic chemicals for Gulf cleanup workers. But the company has been criticized for failing to provide federal health officials with their complete testing information.

"BP needs to fire CTEH and hire a firm without such a questionable track record," Capps said.

Quote of the Day: Ideology in Economics

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 8:14 AM PDT

From Mike Konczal, on his first experience with PhD-level macroeconomics:

Speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again. Hijacking poor Richard Bellman, the defining metaphor was the observation that if something is on an optimal path any subsection is also an optimal path, so government just needs to get out of the way as the macroeconomy is optimal absent absurdly defined shocks and our 9.6% unemployment is clearly optimal.

Ideology is everywhere, and it's often strongest in the very places that pretend the hardest that they don't cater to it. Economics, unfortunately, is still an immature discipline, much more complex than something like chemistry or physics, and that means that if you pick your assumptions carefully you can prove almost anything you want. And economists do.

Another GOP Fin. Reform Defector?

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 7:54 AM PDT

After more than a year of hand-wringing, negotiating, bickering, leaking, and (some) compromise, is financial reform about to crash and burn at the 11th hour? The chances of the Dodd-Frank bill failing to win the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, where the measure must pass before going to President Obama, are increasing by the day. Yesterday, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) reiterated his opposition to the bill, after having voted against it in May, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who didn't vote in May but would've backed the bill, passed away yesterday morning. (A position our own Kevin Drum simply can't understand.) Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who joined Feingold in opposing the bill, has yet to change her stance. A spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who voted for the bill in May, told Mother Jones yesterday the senator was still digesting its contents, which means one of four GOP votes is up in the air.

And now, as Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler reports, another Senate Republican who'd backed the financial bill in May is on the fence:

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) joined Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) this evening, putting herself back into the undecided column on Wall Street reform legislation, after House and Senate negotiators added new fees on banks to the final bill late last week.

"It was not part of either the House or Senate bill and was added in the wee hours of the morning. So I'm taking a look at the specifics of that and other provisions as well," Collins told reporters this evening outside the Senate chamber.

That big bank tax, inserted by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on the final night of the House-Senate conference process, is proving to be more of a headache than it's worth. As Beutler mentioned, Scott Brown, who supported financial reform in May, has threatened to join the rest of his party in opposing the bill because of the tax, which Frank added to make banks pay for implementing the Dodd-Frank bill.

This spells trouble for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the Senate's leader on financial reform. His 60-vote supermajority is crumbling, arguably through no fault of his own. It appears likely that the Senate will push back by a week the final vote on Dodd-Frank, so it can secure those 60 votes and avoid a catastrophic loss on the Senate floor.

The Wall Street reform fight, from day one, has been a nervewracking one, with close votes and backroom deals and narrow victories. The final step in the process is shaping up to be no less of a nailbiter.

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Kagan Confirmation Hearings: Continuing Coverage

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 7:11 AM PDT

Elena Kagan is appearing before the Senate judiciary committee for the second day of hearings assessing her suitability for the Supreme Court. I'm covering the action on Twitter. For a primer on what to expect from Kagan's GOP inquisitors, see my preview here.

6 Ways Air Travel Is Getting Worse

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 5:49 AM PDT

Since the TSA stepped in and the airlines went bust, hating flying has become practically a national pastime. But there is some merit to this reaction: In many ways, air travel quality has been steadily deteriorating. Below, six ways flying is actually getting worse.

1. New Fees. Consumer Reports recently found that airlines collected $7.8 billion in 2009 in additional fees, a 42 percent increase from 2008. These fees are for everything from booking your ticket by phone ($20 on Continental) to checking luggage ($25 for the first checked bag on American). United charges you a whopping $50 "ticket handling fee" for paper tickets. Starting in August, Spirit will charge you $20 for your second carry-on. No wonder ticket fares are relatively low... they're making up for it with fees.

2. TSA/Security. While it's been shown many times that the TSA's guidelines on liquids, containers, and Ziploc baggies haven't stopped dangerous materials getting through, passengers must still display belongings and take off shoes and coats before agents. But wait, it gets better. Now that full-body scanners are being deployed in dozens of airports nationwide, TSA doesn't just look through your stuff: It looks through your clothes, too. Underneath the terminal, meanwhile, only 75 percent of cargo traveling on passenger planes is required to be scanned.

3. The Lists. The TSA's mysterious "No-Fly" list includes tens of thousands of travelers. According to the TSA, the No-Fly list "keeps known terrorists off planes," even if those "terrorists" are dead, senators, billionaires, or adorable six-year-old girls. Separate from the No-Fly list is the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database, which airlines use to screen for terrorists. The ACLU calculates there are about 1 million fliers on it, domestic and international. As the lists continue to bloat, it makes finding the real terrorists even harder. Delayed updates, faulty information, and mistakes in judgment have agencies stopping Nelson Mandela while Faisal Shahzad boarded a flight to Dubai and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane while on a US visa.

Enviro Links: White House Energy Huddle, Biden in the Gulf, and More

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 5:00 AM PDT

Today in climate news:

Wondering what Sen. Robert Byrd's death means for a climate and energy bill? Here's a good exploration of the subject. The most important issue is who Gov. Joe Manchin (D) will appoint to finish out the rest of Byrd's term. Manchin, who last year named coal the state rock, is likely to pick someone in line with his own politics to hold the seat, and may well make a bid himself in 2012.

The climate and energy huddle with President Obama and a bipartisan group of 23 senators has been rescheduled for this morning. Dems reportedly on the invite list: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Tom Carper (Del.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Harry Reid (Nev.), John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.); Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.). Republicans: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Olympia Snow (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Susan Collins (Maine). Lindsey Graham (SC) was invited, but he says he's too busy to attend.

Still, most Republicans are not planning to endorse climate legislation this year, no way, no how.

ClimateWire reports that it is looking more likely that a final vote on an energy and climate package might come in a lame-duck session after the November elections.

Brad Johnson at Wonk Room says Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan to group climate and energy will call out the "climate peacocks"—the senators who voted to block the EPA from regulating climate change because they said they believe that it should be the job of Congress.

And in BP oil disaster news:

Tropical Storm Alex looks likely to become a hurricane. While it is not expected to hit the oil-slicked region of the Gulf, it may delay efforts to capture more oil from the gusher.

Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Louisiana and Florida today to survey oil disaster damage and response.

Oil has now hit Mississippi's beaches.

Best quote from the TEDxOilSpill Conference yesterday, from ecologist Carl Safina: "If you put the murderer in charge of the crime scene, they will try to hide the body."

Also at TEDx, Francis Beland, a VP at the XPrize Foundation, announced they will offer a $10 million prize for the best ideas about how to deal with the oil spill. Got a good idea? Email him: francis@xprize.org.

Not only do we need to worry about the polluted Gulf, but the level of pollutants in the air in the region is also raising red flags. Scientists aren't yet sure whether it's the oil, the dispersants, or a combination of the two that is causing the high levels of toxic chemicals in the air.

House Democrats bash other oil companies for their pitiful spill response planning, which looks suspiciously like BP's.

Wildlife rescuers are taking extraordinary measures to save turtle hatchlings from the oil disaster in the Gulf, the St. Petersburg Times reports. State and federal biologists plan to move 800 nests along Florida's Panhandle and the Alabama coast 500 miles to the east, possibly to a climate-controlled warehouse.

BP is now spending more than $100 million a day on containing and cleaning up the oil disaster.

US seafood suppliers are turning to Asian shrimpers to make up for the deficit due to the Gulf disaster.

And in other environmental news:

Old roof shingles are being used to pave roads.

Dengue fever is making a comeback in the United States.

Uniformed Cops on BP Payroll? Enter the ACLU

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 3:03 AM PDT

Some updates on the incident I reported on last week, in which an off-duty Louisiana sheriff's deputy working for BP's private security detail harassed an environmental activist who was neither on BP's property nor breaking any laws. (Watch the video at the end of this post.)

First, some gratifying news: The ACLU has put Louisiana law enforcement on notice. In a letter (PDF) released yesterday, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the group's Louisiana chapter, reminded the sheriffs of the coastal parishes that "members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one—neither law enforcement nor a private corporation—has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public."

Esman told me that the ACLU had discussed the matter due in large part to Mother Jones' reporting. She says it would consider filing a lawsuit if appropriate.

Louisiana police don't have any right to tell you you can't walk onto a public beach (even to, as Esman puts it, "roll around in sticky gunky tar that I'll never be able to get off—if I want to, that's my right"). However, they do have the right to mislead you about who they're really working for. In Louisiana, as in many places, it's legal for police officers to wear their uniforms regardless of whether they're acting in an official capacity or working for a private corporation. Which is why Andrew Wheelan, the environmentalist mentioned above, was unaware that the cop who pressured him to stop filming a BP building and later pulled him over so that a BP official could question him wasn't on duty at the time. The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office told me that the deputy who pulled Wheelan over is just one of 40 in the parish who are working for BP on their own time. And the BP-police collusion goes beyond uniformed deputies moonlighting. In nearby Lafourche Parish, for example, the sheriff's office is filling 57 security positions a week for BP; the shifts are on the clock, and BP reimburses the sheriff's office for them.

There's been a lot of to-do about the federal government being officially in charge of all things oil-spill related, and Mother Jones ruffled some feathers by quoting a BP rep who said the company had a lot of sway over local sheriff's departments. But there you have it, plain as day: Down here, many cops do literally work for BP.

Seem like a conflict of interest, or even sort of scary? Perhaps. But, as Esman points out, it's perfectly legal. "BP doesn't have the right to just decide they're going to take over a public street," she says. "They do not have the authority to tell people they can't document what they see. But they do have the right to hire these deputies. There's nothing we can do about that."