2010 - %3, July

Dissing the Volt

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

Edward Niedermeyer goes to town on the Chevy Volt:

For starters, G.M.’s vision turned into a car that costs $41,000 before relevant tax breaks ... but after billions of dollars of government loans and grants for the Volt’s development and production. And instead of the sleek coupe of 2007, it looks suspiciously similar to a Toyota Prius. It also requires premium gasoline, seats only four people (the battery runs down the center of the car, preventing a rear bench) and has less head and leg room than the $17,000 Chevrolet Cruze, which is more or less the non-electric version of the Volt.

This is actually not as bad as I feared when Jack Shafer pointed me toward Niedermeyer's blast. Looks like a Prius? Meh. Requires premium gasoline? The whole point is that it doesn't use much gasoline in the first place (no one buys a Volt if they do a lot of long-distance driving), so meh again. Seats four people? That's a drawback, but not a big one for most people. And although headroom and legroom are indeed a bit less than the Cruze, reviewers mostly seem to think it's pretty adequate.

That leaves that $41,000 price tag. Which comes down to maybe $34,000 after the federal rebate and perhaps a bit less if your state also offers a rebate. Either way, it's still a whole lot more than $17,000, and you're not going to come close to making that up in fuel costs no matter how long you keep the thing. The rest of the Volt's drawbacks may be modest (and you can add limited trunk space to Niedermeyer's list), but they seem a lot worse when you're paying 15 grand for the privilege of suffering through them.

Not to worry, though. In the software biz we always say that nothing is ever right until v3.0. So by 2018 or so the Volt should be in good shape. Assuming that General Motors still exists by then, of course.

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Republican Temper Tantrums, Part 873

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

As a quick followup to my filibuster post this morning, here's a Center for American Progress chart on Republican use of holds against judicial nominees. Nickel summary: it's way up:

Judicial confirmations slowed to a trickle on the day President Barack Obama took office. Filibusters, anonymous holds, and other obstructionary tactics have become the rule. Uncontroversial nominees wait months for a floor vote, and even district court nominees—low-ranking judges whose confirmations have never been controversial in the past—are routinely filibustered into oblivion. Nominations grind to a halt in many cases even after the Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously endorsed a nominee.

....There is a simple explanation for the sudden drop-off in confirmation rates—obstructionists in the Senate are using filibusters and holds at an unprecedented rate. And it is nearly impossible to break the filibusters and holds on Obama’s nominees.

For all practical purposes, holds and filibusters are the same thing. The Senate runs on unanimous consent, which means that a single person can bring things to a halt if he or she wants to. A filibuster in the modern era is basically just a threat to withhold unanimous consent if the majority attempts to hold a vote, and the same is true of a hold. They're two sides of the same coin.

Obama has come under a lot of criticism from the left for his slow pace in nominating judges. And he deserves it. But honestly, how much does it matter given the obstructionism from Republicans that's now become routine? As the CAP report says, even district court judges are being held up at unprecedented rates, even though they've enjoyed 90% confirmation rates pretty steadily all the way through the last administration. But today's Republicans haven't even allowed votes on half of Obama's nominees. If there's any aspect of the Senate rules that seems ripe for reform, this is it. But even this, I'd guess, has a pretty slim chance of getting it.

Sandoval: "My Children Don't Look Hispanic"

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 9:53 AM EDT

Republican Brian Sandoval, who's trying to become Nevada's first Hispanic governor, is under fire for saying that his "children don't look Hispanic," suggesting that they wouldn't be subject to racial profiling by law enforcement officials.

Sandoval, a former US district judge, made the remarks during an interview with Univision when asked how he'd feel if his children were stopped in the street and asked for their immigration papers. An adamant supporter of Arizona's harsh immigration law, Sandoval first tried to deny that he had made the comments, which weren't aired by the television station. "I've never heard that quote before and I've never described my children as looking Hispanic or not Hispanic," Sandoval told a local news anchor. But as the accusations continued to fly, Sandoval hurriedly tried to backpedal. "If I did say those words, it was wrong and I sincerely regret it. I am proud of my heritage," he said in a statement.

A reporter for the Las Vegas Sun confirmed on Thursday that Sandoval had made the comments on videotape. His Democratic opponent Rory Reid has swiftly pounced on the remarks and Sandoval's attempt to deny them. In a press release on Thursday, Reid slammed Sandoval for making "yet another untruthful statement," accusing him of flip-flopping on whether Nevada should issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The controversy shows some of the cracks in the Republican Party's strategy of pushing right-wing, anti-amnesty Hispanic candidates in major 2010 races. Sandoval seemed to be making some inroads with Hispanic voters on the campaign trail, despite his inability to speak Spanish and hardline views on views on immigration. "Hispanic voters just assume he's lying to get elected," one Democratic consultant told Slate. But Sandoval's recent gaffe could leave voters wondering whether he's simply trying to have it both ways.

Grunwald Responds to Spill Coverage Criticism

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 8:20 AM EDT

I fired off a piece yesterday criticizing Michael Grunwald's article in Time, which I feel significantly downplays what's happening in the Gulf. (I'm not alone in the criticism; others, including a fellow Time writer, have pointed out that it's far too early to tell the true extent of the damage, and we still don't really know where all the oil is.) This lead to an interesting email exchange with Grunwald, whose previous work, as I mentioned yesterday, I have quite admired.

We've agreed to disagree on the subject. We also agreed very much in other areas, like the greater significance of longterm threats to the Gulf Coast that have nothing to do with the oil. I also told him we'd run his response to the criticism, which I've posted below:

You’re right that “in reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is.” I said that in my piece. But as I’m being deluged by complaints that nobody knows how bad this will be, that it’s premature and irresponsible to speculate, I have to say: Now you tell me? I hadn’t been to the spill before last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to write a piece like this, because everything I read and heard over the last three months—from the media, environmentalists and everyone else—assured me this was the worst ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. I assumed there was evidence that this was the worst ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. But there isn’t. Quite the contrary. And once I pointed that out, everyone suddenly decided there’s no way to know how big a deal this is. I eagerly await the new TV chryons about the “Potential Disaster in the Gulf.”
Look: nobody has challenged any of the data in my piece. You quoted David Pettit complaining about “oiled marshes as far as the eye can see,” but let’s quantify it: shoreline assessment teams have found 253.9 miles of oiled marshes, 38.5 miles of them heavily oiled, but only 350 oiled acres, because in most cases the oil is only penetrating a few feet. Very little is getting into the soils. That’s why Dr. Turner—perhaps the oil industry’s worst enemy in Louisiana—thinks airboats cleaning up the spill will destroy more wetlands than the spill itself. And remember: Louisiana was already losing 15,000 acres of wetlands a year before this. It lost more than 200 square miles of wetlands in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That’s why Dr. Kemp—of the Audubon Society, not BP!—called this “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” That’s why Gulf Restoration Network’s Aaron Viles—who you quoted in your piece, to show what a big deal this spill was—told me in an email today that “the coastal wetlands crisis makes the BP disaster look like a lovely day at Audubon Park."

Eco-News Roundup: Friday July 30

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 6:24 AM EDT

Safe! New poll shows there's enough support for health care reform to keep it in place.

Uncertain on Caps: Conservatives want a climate solution, but killed the surest option.

Summer Sun: Letting inmates bake in triple-digit heat is torture at GITMO, but not in US prisons.

Helping Hand: Media outlets are helping BP pretend there's no more oil to clean up.

Kid Speak: An interview between a state senator and advocates to help special needs kids.

Double Standard: Katy Perry's racy video is YouTube'd, but a gay parody gets banned.

 

Enviro Links: Wetlands Astroturf, Big Coal Loves Citizens United, and More

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Today in BP-related news:

America's Wetland Foundation might sound like your regular old conservation group, but it's actually a front-group funded by BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Citgo, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and other polluters, Brendan DeMelle reports. The teamed with a Louisiana women's group called Women of the Storm to propagate the idea that taxpayers should pay to restore the Gulf Coast after the oil disaster. Sandra Bullock managed to get caught up in the greenwash by agreeing to be in their ads, but has now asked that they be taken down after the industry funding was revealed.

My personal favorite line from BP's SEC filing: "The incident has damaged BP’s reputation and brand, with adverse public and political sentiment evident. This could persist into the longer term, which could impede our ability to deliver long-term growth."

Turns out there have been a whole lot of spills in the Gulf over the past five decades.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill this week that would require better testing of oil dispersants and confirmation that the chemicals are not hazardous to humans and the environment.

And in other environmental news:

The Hill reports that coal-friendly Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate want to protect the industry from the EPA's plans to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. They worry that doing so would be a "crippling blow" to industries that benefit from reuse of the byproduct, which happens to contain hazardous materials like arsenic and mercury.

One big beneficiary of the Citizens United ruling: Big Coal. Major coal companies are planning to pool their cash in a to defeat "anti-coal" Democrats, the Kentucky Herald-Leader reports. Forming a 527 means companies like Massey Energy won't have to disclose how much they've spent until next year's tax filings.

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Elections in the Garden of Good and Evil

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

In a paper published this week by open-access journal PLoS ONE, Max Plank Institutue researchers Daniel Casasanto and Kyle Jasmin looked at the association between politicians' hand gestures and the content of their speeches. After examining more than 3000 spoken clauses and 1700 hand gestures from John Kerry and George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 election, they had ample evidence of a pattern: When discussing something positive, right-handers Kerry and Bush most often gestured with their right hands, while southpaws Obama and McCain both used their lefts. And the opposite held as well: If Obama was saying something negative, then, he was more likely use his right hand; Bush used his left. The researchers noted one particularly intriguing application for their findings:

"The hand that speakers use for spontaneous gestures provides an index of their feelings about the content of the co-occurring speech. If listeners can track which hand a speaker uses to gesture, they may be able to receive subtle clues to the speaker's attitude toward the things they are talking about—albeit the clues are statistical, not absolute, and the listener must know the speaker's handedness to interpret them."

Tea Partiers Freak Over Six Flags "Muslim Day"

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The Six Flags amusement park chain has had its share of bad press lately, what with kids getting decapitated or having their feet chopped off on roller coaster rides, filing for bankruptcy and other Dan Snyder-related disasters. But the latest flap is more political. Tea partiers and other anti-Islam activists are freaking out about a Muslim Family Day planned for several Six Flags parks around the country on Sept. 12, the day after the World Trade Center attacks. The event, sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), offers Muslim families a chance to hang at the amusement park and be catered to by modestly dressed employees and halal food vendors.

While Six Flags has been holding these events since 2000 for the 42-year-old Muslim nonprofit, apparently this year, it's getting more attention, both because it falls on the weekend of Sept. 11 and also because of the ongoing controversy about the Muslim center planned a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York. Naturally Glenn Beck, who mocked the event on his show last week, and Fox News have stoked the paranoia and opposition, giving the day ample coverage. Last week, Fox hosted guests who have suggested that the ICNA is a front for Hamas and other terrorist groups. Now, tea partiers are in a full froth about the event and there are already calls to boycott the bankrupt amusement park chain.

On the Tea Party Patriots website, a member posted an item entitled, "Stop Six Flags Muslim Family Day" which includes a missive from Annie Hamilton, an L.A. woman leading the charge against the park. She writes:

Muslim Day at Six Flags is inappropriate for a multitude of reasons and I'm saddened and shocked by the ignorance of the Corporate folks and by the action that now must be taken by the rest of us.

First, Islam is NOT a religion, it is an ideology - the religious portion only encompasses 11 % (the qur'an) the rest is the Sira and Hadith and the closest parallel to Islam is the Ku Klux Klan - if that is Six Flag's idea of 'appropriate' then by all means, hold your day on September 12th but don't plan on expanding any time soon because not only will we ensure that you don't grow, we'll make sure that your parks become a thing of the past...

STOP THE SILENCE. STOP THE NONSENCE. STOP THE MUSLIM DAY - THEY ARE NOT AMERICANS. THEY DO NOT ABIDE BY OUR CONSTITUTION - THEY ARE NOT ONE OF US - YOU ARE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US - MAKE YOUR DECISION.

None of the tea party commentaries mention that one of the men who first established the Muslim Family Day event in 2000 was himself killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Nor do they seem to understand that the scheduling issue has far more to do with the Muslim calendar than any intentional desire to link the event to 9/11. The event is designed to celebrate the end of Ramadan, which ends on Sept. 10 this year. ICNA obviously didn't want to have its festivities on 9/11, so scheduled it for the next day. (Some tea partiers, meanwhile, have actually scheduled a big political rally on the National Mall for the anniversary of 9/11, but they don't see a big problem with that.)*

Those nuances seem utterly lost on the tea partiers. So far, though, their freakout hasn't yet persuaded Six Flags to cancel. The company is either nobly standing firm in their commitment to diversity, or is in dire need of the 50,000 customers the day typically brings to their parks. Either way, a Six Flags spokeswoman told Fox News last week that the day would be nothing more than a "fun-filled family outing that typically coincides with Eid, the end of the Ramadan holiday."

*UPDATE 8/25/10: The original version of this story misstated the name of the ICNA president. He is Zahid Bukhari.

Murkowski vs. the Clean Air Act: Round 2

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The Senate voted down an attempt to take away the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon dioxide pollution last month, but the fight isn't over. In fact, it's only beginning.

That measure, offered by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, was premised (rather shakily, considering its source) on the idea that Congress, not the EPA, should act on climate change. But now that the Senate has made it clear that it's not doing anything anytime soon, Murkowski is planning to take another jab at the Clean Air Act.

Now Murkowski is considering whether to take it upon herself to offer the measure that Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) floated, which would set a two-year time-out on new regulations on planet-warming gases from the EPA, set to begin phasing in next year. Rockefeller says he has been promised a floor vote on that measure. Murkowski says she's just "helping" Democrats get around to voting on Rockefeller's measure.

So far, she's floated the idea of pinning it to the small business bill currently under consideration, since it doesn't look like Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow amendments on that bill.

More on her plans, via The Hill:

Murkowski said that it would be more natural to offer Rockefeller’s amendment to an upcoming oil-spill response and energy package, but that "it doesn’t look like we’ll have any opportunity to have any amendments [to that package]. Which I find quite stunning."
"So at this point in time, I'm helping the majority leader keep his commitment to bringing the Rockefeller bill up for a vote."

The vote on Murkowski's last measure was uncomfortably close, with six Democrats siding with the entirety of the Republican Party against the EPA. A vote on Rockefeller could be even closer, especially now that regulations under the Clean Air Act loom on the horizon in 2011. Now that the Senate has punted on climate action, expect these EPA attacks to become more potent in the coming months.

Who's Afraid of the Filibuster?

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

As I've mentioned before, there's no serious question that Democrats can get rid of the filibuster if they want to. It's not even complicated. They can't do it right now, because it takes 67 votes to change Senate rules in the middle of a congressional session, but at the beginning of a congressional session they can write all the new rules they want and pass them with a simple majority. To simplify just slightly, all they have to do is wait until January when the 112th Congress meets for the first time, pass a rule that eliminates the filibuster, and then rely on the presiding officer—currently Vice President Joe Biden—to rule that this is kosher. Previous vice presidents from Richard Nixon forward have all agreed that this is legitimate, so there are no real disputes about precedent.

So that's no problem. The problem is that you still need 51 Democrats to sign on to this plan, and as The Hill reports, that ain't gonna happen:

Five Senate Democrats have said they will not support a lowering of the 60-vote bar necessary to pass legislation. Another four lawmakers say they are wary about such a change and would be hesitant to support it. A 10th Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said he would support changing the rule on filibusters of motions to begin debate on legislation, but not necessarily the 60-vote threshold needed to bring up a final vote on bills.

No matter what anyone says, this has always been the reason the filibuster continues to exist: because both parties want it. They mostly don't want to admit it, but both Democrats and Republicans have always had an essentially defensive view of the power of government: They're more interested in stopping the other guys when they're in power than they are in getting their own things done when they're in power. In fact, for a lot of senators, the filibuster acts as a pretty convenient excuse for not doing things they don't want to do in the first place. It allows them to deliver partisan stemwinders to the faithful during campaign season without having to worry about actually delivering once they're safely back in Washington.

So despite the massive abuse of the filibuster that we've seen over the past few years, in which Republicans have made its use so universal that even Mother's Day resolutions now need 60 votes to pass the Senate, it's not going anywhere.

But how about something more modest? Even that would be hard. Dylan Matthews reports that a hearing this week on two proposals to make small changes to the filibustering rules didn't exactly light the world on fire:

Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer was enthusiastic about Lautenberg's plan, calling it "ingenious," but was more measured on Bennet's, saying only that it was "extremely interesting" and acknowledging that Bennet had "worked long and hard" on it. Robert Bennett, the committee's ranking Republican (and no relation to Michael Bennet), expressed concern that the proposals would turn the Senate into the House, and wreak havoc on the Senate calendar by effectively establishing a one-track legislative process.

Lautenberg's plan is modest indeed: Current rules include a three-day delay between the time cloture is invoked against a filibuster and the vote itself. All his proposal does is force filibusterers to actually talk during that time. If they stop, the majority leader can call the vote immediately. This is, truly, the most meager change imaginable: It would be no trouble for the filibustering party to tag team its way through three days of floor speeches, and even if they didn't the only result would be a slightly faster process. You'd still need 60 votes to pass anything.

Bennet's proposal, the one so outlandish that Schumer barely wanted to acknowledge its existence, would reform the practice of anonymous holds and lower the bar for ending a filibuster to 55 votes unless the minority party can find at least one member of the other party to join them. In other words, purely partisan filibusters would need 45 members to sustain them instead of 41. But that's apparently out of the question.

So are there any changes that are possible? Probably not, but my best guess for a rule change that has at least a chance of getting bipartisan support is something limited to the practice of holds. Like the filibuster, holds have gotten wildly out of control over the past couple of years, and it's conceivable that there might be bipartisan support for reining them in. There are two reasons to be optimistic on this score. First, even rabid partisans mostly agree that presidents ought to have the right to appoint their own people to executive branch positions (judges are a different story). Second, this is narrow enough that a deal is possible. In return for tightening up the rules on holds, the minority party might get, say, a better deal on committee staffing. There's scope for horsetrading here.

And the reason to feel pessimistic about even a deal on holds? Because holds are the perfect expression of senatorial privilege, the ability of any single senator to bring the entire chamber to a halt if he feels like it. It's what gives them bargaining power for all their little pet projects, and senators—whether in the minority or not—simply aren't willing to give that up.

Bottom line: Reform of anything related to filibusters or holds is pretty unlikely. No matter what Harry Reid says, he almost certainly doesn't have the votes to do anything serious.