2011 - %3, August

Veteran WI GOP State Senator: "I'm Not Sure" I'll Survive Recall Election

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 12:48 PM EDT

It's less than a week until Wisconsin voters hit the polls in the recall elections of six Republican state senators. According to polling by Wisconsin's Democratic Party, Democratic challengers are, for the most part, sitting pretty right now, leading in three races and tied in the rest. Mind you, these are internal polls, so they should taken with a grain of salt.

But in the case of Republican Alberta Darling, a 20-year veteran of the Wisconsin state senate, you don't need polls to know she's in trouble in her race against Democratic state assemblywoman Sandy Pasch. Darling herself admitted as much on Tuesday. In response to an audience member's comment "Obviously you think you're going to win this," Darling said, "I'm not sure. It's going to be about turnout." From a long-time member of the Wisconsin GOP and a lock to win her recall mere months ago, that's a striking admission.

Here's the video, from the state Democratic Party:

Now, since the clip is short, we don't know what Darling said after this. According to polling data, Darling has some cause to worry: One poll released in mid-July by the Democratic Party showed Pasch ahead of Darling by 1 percentage point, while a Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by the liberal Daily Kos put Darling up by 5 points. Even then, it's a sign of the shifting political headwinds in Wisconsin that the Republican state senator considered by Democrats to be the least likely to lose her recall election is now conceding that she may be unseated.

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Tackling Healthcare in the Supercommittee

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 12:09 PM EDT

Yesterday I suggested that if we really had to have a Supercommittee tasked with closing the long-term deficit further, it ought to be focused on healthcare since that's where our long-term deficit problem lies. But I left it to healthcare experts to figure out just what the committee should do.

The first thing to keep in mind, of course, is that when it comes to Medicare about half of our future increases are due to an aging population. Unless you're a big Soylent Green fan there's just nothing we can do about that, so we should face reality and accept the need for a gradual increase in Medicare taxes (or some other funding source) to handle that.

But we can also save money by making Medicare more efficient. PPACA does some of this already, but what more could we do? Austin Frakt is an expert, and he has some ideas:

  • More competitive bidding.
  • Prescription drug formularies to reduce pharmaceutical costs to VA levels.
  • Support comparative effectiveness research.
  • Based on that research, insist on paying for only the cheapest effective treatments.
  • Get tougher on setting rates for all healthcare providers, as the most efficient systems in other countries do.
  • Etc.

There's more at the link. If you want to get a handle on what we could do if we were really serious about cutting Medicare costs without sacrificing quality of care, it's a good place to start.

The Political Junk Shot Epidemic Hits My Hometown

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 11:55 AM EDT

There's no reason why you would have heard of Cumberland County, New Jersey. Trust me, I'm from there. Until recently, our claims to fame included serving as one of the last vestiges of "garden" in the Garden State and our proximity to Philadelphia and Atlantic City. But now my home county has gained international attention due to it's very own junk shot scandal involving a local Democratic pol.

On Tuesday, Lou Magazzu, a member of the county's Board of Chosen Freeholders (the county-level government body) resigned after naked photos he sent to a woman he corresponded with online appeared on the internet. The photos of Magazzu first surfaced in early July, but it was only this week that story hit the local press. From the Cumberland News:

The photographs were acquired by county Republican political activist Carl Johnson, a long-time enemy of Magazzu, a Democrat, who stated the woman gave him the pictures along with numerous text messages and e-mails allegedly sent between her and the former freeholder.

Magazzu accused the woman of "working with an avowed political enemy" to distribute the photos. His lawyer also argued that this Magazzu's controversy is different from the national scandal featuring ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner, because the photos were sent "to one adult, consenting woman, in a private capacity."

My father, also a member of the board, has been tapped to sit on the ethics committee that has been empaneled in the wake of the scandal. I'm not really sure how much ethical policy there is to work out here though. "No photos of your genitalia on the internet" should be a fairly straightforward prerequisite for sitting public officials—unless you were elected based on your past notoriety as a porn star or nude model. Then you get a special pass.

Apparently the Magazzu scandal is making my home county famous. So far, it's made the New York Daily News, Political Wire, and even the UK's Daily Mail.

Wall Street Suddenly Facing Reality?

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

I opened up my LA Times this morning and here's what I read (the headline is from the print edition)

Stocks Sink As Market Fears Mount
Investors are spooked by the prospect of even modest bederal budget cuts in an anemic recovery

Two years after the last recession ended, Wall Street is showing rising fear that the U.S. economy could be headed for a new downturn....Despite some relief that Washington could forge an eleventh-hour compromise on the debt ceiling, analysts said the prospect of even modest federal budget cuts in an anemic economy was spooking markets.

"Investors are looking past the budget situation and realizing this is an austerity plan," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. "We have an economy that's struggling to stay afloat and we don't have the ammunition to keep prodding it forward."

Oh really? Now you tell us?

There are really only two options here. (1) The Times is wrong. (2) The Times is right and America has the stupidest goddamn investors on the planet. For months they sat around cheering on the tea partiers and declaring solemnly that the federal budget was just like a household budget and we needed "real action" on the debt in order to build confidence in the economy. Then, suddenly, when they got it, they realized that what they really wanted wasn't dumb slogans but actual policies that would help spur the recovery. And that means looser monetary policy and fiscal stimulus.

So which is it? Has Wall Street really been sitting idly by during the whole debt ceiling debacle and has only now realized what it really means? Can they really be so steeped in the Fox News fantasyland that it never occurred to them until now that cutting federal spending during an economic downturn wasn't really a great idea? Seriously?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 3, 2011

Wed Aug. 3, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Spent shell casings pile up as a soldier fires his weapon down-range during weapons qualification on Fort Riley, Kansas, July 26, 2011. The soldier is assigned to the 1st Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade. US Army photo by Sgt. Roland Hale.

Quote of the Day: The Conservative Nanny State

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 12:46 AM EDT

From Conor Friedersdorf, writing about a new bill reported out of the House Judiciary Committee today:

Under language approved 19 to 10 by a House committee, the firm that sells you Internet access would be required to track all of your Internet activity and save it for 18 months, along with your name, the address where you live, your bank account numbers, your credit card numbers, and IP addresses you've been assigned.

And why do they want to do that? It's all about the children, of course. Click the link for more.

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When is a Regulation Not a Regulation?

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 11:49 PM EDT

I got sucked into a regulatory vortex today. It's way down in some weeds that most of you don't care about, but let me tell you about it anyway. It's instructive.

I don't remember now where I first saw this, but apparently the conservative community is in an uproar over proposed new rules that would classify farm equipment as commercial vehicles, thus requiring farmers to get commercial drivers licenses, keep detailed logs, submit to periodic drug testing, etc. etc. It would be expensive and annoying and farmers don't like it. Just another example of the overbearing Obama administration regulating us to death.

So I got curious. What was this all about? First I went to the website of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and looked at their Request for Comment on this issue. And I got perplexed. FMCSA didn't really seem to be proposing anything at all. First, they're asking for comment on their longstanding policy about what counts as interstate commerce vs. intrastrate commerce. Second, they're asking for comment on their longstanding policy about whether a tenant farmer who pays rent in the form of a share of the crop should count as a commercial operator since he's hauling someone else's stuff when he delivers the landlord's share of the harvest. Third, they're asking for comment on what should count as an "implement of husbandry."

But here's what's weird: the first two items don't propose any new rules at all. They're solely asking for comment. The third item is a proposed new rule, but the wording suggests that FMCSA is trying to loosen regulations, not tighten them. And yet, a Google search came up with lots of people opposed to the "new rules" and precisely no one who seemed to be in favor. So what's up?

Finally I figured it out. After reading through a blog post about all this, followed by lots of outraged comments ("What else can you possibily find to TAX!!!" etc. etc.), I found an actual substantive explanation of what's going on from Adam Nielsen of the Illinois Farm Bureau. Here's how this all got started:

The issue facing us today surfaced in Illinois when State Police auditors conducting new entrant safety audits for Illinois Department of Transportation suddenly began treating farmers with “crop-share” leases as commercial “for-hire” truckers for the purposes of enforcing federal motor carrier safety rules....At the same time, state auditors began designating “implements of husbandry” as commercial vehicles resulting in a double whammy of enforcement never seen before in Illinois and forcing many farmers to be out of compliance.

So the problem was that state officials in Illinois had suddenly created a bunch of new rules. The Illinois Farm Bureau was unhappy, so they paid a call on the FMCSA:

At our first meeting at U.S. DOT in early March, FMCSA administrator Anne Ferro pledged to review the issue and get back to us quickly with answers. We were pleased when an immediate moratorium on new entrant audits in Illinois was imposed. At our meeting, Administrator Ferro also told us that she was motivated to begin building a ongoing dialogue with the agriculture industry and help her staff gain a better understanding of the movement of agricultural products and equipment. Our D.C. meeting was followed a few weeks later by a large meeting in Springfield with state and federal motor carrier regulators.

....The current Federal Register request for comments is NOT a rule making. It simply asks farm organizations, farmers, and the public for feedback on the agency’s current long standing interpretations.

So here's what seems to have happened. The FMCSA has long had rules that defined most grain haulage as interstate commerce and designated farmers hauling shared crops as commercial operators. This was never a big deal because they had never enforced those rules and neither had anyone else. But then Illinois decided to start enforcing the letter of the law and Illinois farmers were unhappy. So now FMCSA is asking whether these regulations ever made sense in the first place. Ditto for implements of husbandry, where they say that "a narrowly literal reading would mean applying the rules in circumstances where they would be impractical and produce no discernible safety benefits." So they want to make sure that the rules are more practical.

I might still be missing something here. Figuring out what's really going on just by reading rulemaking bureaucratese isn't easy. But it looks like the outrage over this is yet another example of Obama Derangement Syndrome in action. Far from trying to implement a barrage of regulations on our nation's farmers, FMCSA is apparently trying to stop state officials from implementing a barrage of regulations on our nation's farmers. But something tells me this doesn't matter. ODS is strong, and I imagine this is all going to be part of conservative lore for years. After all, everyone knows that liberals just love writing reams of pointless new regulations on hardworking small business owners. Right?

Deadly Animals: A Walk on the Wild Side

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 9:36 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Bringing the best of natural history filmmaking to a large audience has never been easy. But what happens when you get the taste for something a little darker? Something a little more sinister, a little harder to find, something that’s intentionally keeping itself far from your reach.

This month at BBC Earth we are hunting down all that is Deadly. Gathering together the incredible knowledge of the BBC Earth natural history teams, with the most interesting and thrilling nature photography and film from the BBC.

Our blog will be taking the road less traveled in bringing you exclusive insights from behind the lens with none other than Steve Backshall, the naturalist who reaches parts of the world others just can't.

And on our YouTube, we will be dedicating a play-list especially to Steve who has made his pain whilst the filming of the "Deadly 60" series (now airing on Nat Geo Wild on Mondays from 10pm) our pleasure.

So join the hunt with us! Dance with sharks, meet some lethal giants, and discover oddities you cannot help but share... even with the most squeamish of your friends.

What's Happening With the Debt Ceiling Explained

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 8:45 PM EDT
President Barack Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Welcome to our debt ceiling explainer. As of August 3, this explainer is no longer being updated on a daily basis. You can read on for the basics of Congress' debt ceiling fight and a blow-by-blow account of the action from late June to the day President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law, on August 2. In addition, you can read about the deep, painful cuts to public investment and safety exacted by the bill, Kevin Drum on why the bill sucks, David Corn on the White House's strategy and Nancy Pelosi's crucial role in sealing the deal, and why this fight was just one of many to come. Going forward, major developments will be noted on our main Political Mojo blog.


The Basics: On August 2 (or maybe a few weeks later), the US government will reach the point where it can no longer pay its bills. That's because, earlier this spring, the federal government reached the legal limit on how much money it can borrow—a.k.a., the "debt ceiling." It's currently set at $14.3 trillion. The government borrows money to pay for everything from tax refunds to wars and veterans' benefits, not to mention repaying our creditors, which include China, Japan, the United Kingdom, state and local governments, pension funds, and investors in America and around the world.

A debt ceiling has existed since 1917. Before that, Congress had to provide its stamp of approval each time the Treasury Department wanted to sell US debt to raise money. (Here's a wonky history of the debt ceiling [PDF], courtesy of the Congressional Research Service.) Putting a borrowing limit in place gave the federal government more flexibility to fill its coffers without going to Congress over and over. Lawmakers in Congress have raised the debt ceiling on many occasions, including eight times in the past decade, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said that failing to raise it and allowing the US default "would shake the basic foundation of the entire global financial system."

What Happens If Congress Doesn't Raise the Debt Limit? In a word: Catastrophe.

At least that's what Geithner told Congress in January. In an ominous letter, he wrote that a US default would wreak havoc on the domestic economy and essentially result in a hefty tax on all Americans.

Corn on "Hardball": Did the Tea Party Win the Debt Ceiling Fight?

Tue Aug. 2, 2011 7:58 PM EDT

David Corn and author Ron Reagan joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball Tuesday night to discuss the resolution of the debt ceiling battle. Was the Tea Party the big winner? If so, what's going to stop them from holding the economy hostage again to get what they want in the future?

Watch the video below:

Want to learn more about the debt ceiling fight? Read David Corn on the Obama administration's strategy, review our detailed, updated explainer on how we got to this point, and learn why Kevin Drum thinks the deal sucks. Still hungry? Andy Kroll has a great piece on what the deal means for our future.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.