Lately, it has been looking more and more likely that America is about to lurch over the fiscal cliff, or fiscal staircase, or fiscal curb, or whatever, due to GOP obstructionism. On Friday, there was a tad more hope on the Hill as congressional leaders met with President Obama to try and come up with some sort of last-minute deal to at least partially avert the $400 billion in across-the-board tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts set to go into effect January 1. To provide a kick in the pants to their fellow members of Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) rallied with dozens of working class folks outside the Capitol Friday to push for a stop-gap measure that would spare the middle class and working poor from tax hikes and expiring unemployment benefits.

Here it is: your final bit of catblogging before we start our Cats & Quilts series in 2013. Marian got me a fisheye lens attachment for my iPhone for Christmas, so last night I experimented taking some distorted iPhone pictures of Domino that could be turned into a Christmas ornament image of her very own next year. (In fact, this is actually a two-iPhone picture, since Marian provided the lighting via the flashlight app on her phone.)

Unfortunately, Domino looks more scary than cute. I think we'll have to try again outdoors where the light is better. Hopefully we'll manage to come up with something good by next December.

The Year in Wonkitude

Ezra Klein and the Wonkblog crew handed out their second annual Wonky awards today, "where we recognize outstanding achievements — and spectacular disasters — in policy wonkery." It's a surprisingly good list! By that, of course, I mean that I mostly agree with their picks, which is the way that most of us define "good," right?

But I do have one big nit to pick: Grover Norquist as Wonk of the Year. Not because Norquist isn't important. He obviously is. Not because he isn't smart. And not because tax fights don't deserve to be highlighted. I'm perplexed because Norquist isn't a wonk. He's got one simple message that he's been hammering away at for decades: taxes should be as low as possible. That's it. No speeches, no white papers, no Greek letter economics. Just an exercise of raw power in the service of low taxes. That makes him a player, but it doesn't make him a wonk.

That aside, it's a pretty interesting list. It's worth a read.

Paul Krugman, like a lot of liberals, is annoyed with Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks:

By all accounts, he’s a good guy, with genuinely generous instincts. But in his message to employees, urging them to write “come together” on coffee cups, he gets the nature of the fiscal cliff completely wrong. In fact, he gets it wrong in two fundamental ways.....First of all, the fiscal cliff is NOT A DEBT PROBLEM. In fact, it’s the opposite.

....And then, on top of that, he has the politics all wrong, in the characteristic centrist way: he makes it sound as if the problem was one of symmetric partisanship, with both sides refusing to compromise. The reality is that Obama has moved a huge way both in offering to exempt more high-earner income from tax hikes and in offering to cut Social Security benefits; meanwhile, the GOP not only won’t agree to any kind of tax hike at all, it also has yet to make any specific offer of any kind.

I'm curious about something: Am I the only one who's annoyed not just at Schultz's confusion, but at the fact that he's asking his employees to endorse an explicitly political message? It's one thing to sell coffee in cups with a message already printed on them: that obviously doesn't suggest any kind of personal recommendation. But writing the message yourself? That's a whole different thing.

Sure, "come together" is pretty anodyne. But it's a political message nonetheless. If Schultz wants to use his own money and his own soapbox to broadcast misinformation, that's his right. But he should leave his employees out of it.

I didn't watch yesterday's Senate debate over the reauthorization of the 2008 FISA Amendments, but my Twitter feed suggested that it was a grim affair. A few senators tried to introduce amendments that would have provided a tiny bit of oversight of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program—remember that?—but they were basically shouted down by my homestate senator, Dianne Feinstein, and the program was quickly reauthorized with essentially no public oversight at all. Glenn Greenwald is quite reasonably angry:

It's hard to put into words just how extreme was Feinstein's day-long fear-mongering tirade. "I've never seen a Congressional member argue so strongly against Executive Branch oversight as Sen. Feinstein did today re the FISA law," said Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. Referring to Feinstein's alternating denials and justifications for warrantless eavesdropping on Americans, the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer observed: "This FISA debate reminds of the torture debate circa 2004: We don't torture! And anyway, we have to torture, we don't have any choice."

....Here we find yet again a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of right-wing radicalism — warrantless eavesdropping — into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus. But it's not just the policies that are so transformed but the mentality and rhetoric that accompanies them: anyone who stands in the way of the US Government's demands for unaccountable, secret power is helping the Terrorists. "The administration has decided the program should be classified", decreed Feinstein, and that is that.

The worst part of all this is that nobody cares. None of our three major daily newspapers made this front-page news. Virtually none of the blogs I read highlighted it. Even my Twitter feed only mentioned it sporadically.

And of course, that includes me. I didn't write about it either. Glenn thinks that liberals have largely given up criticizing this stuff because we now have a Democratic president in the White House rather than George W. Bush, and I suppose that's part of it. But a bigger part, I think, is simply that it's all become so institutionalized. Back in 2004 and 2006, we were outraged because this was all so new. Today, after fighting and losing, it's just part of our brave new world, along with 3-ounce bottles on airplanes, unreviewable no-fly lists, and cops who demand to know what you're up to if you start taking pictures in public places.

As a country, we're now divided into two parts: those who aggressively support things like warrantless wiretapping because they're consumed with fear, and those who don't but have given up trying to fight about it. There's hardly anyone left still willing to tilt at this particular windmill. It's sad as hell.

UPDATE: Here's a straight news account of yesterday's Senate debate from Wired. Our own Adam Serwer has more coverage here, including the obvious question about opposition to the oversight amendments: "But if the program is constitutional, and the oversight is effective, what is there to be afraid of?"

The LA Times reports that serious crime was down in Los Angeles this year, but it didn't decline as much as it has in the past:

Overall, crime declined by about 2% in Los Angeles, fueled by drops in many serious crimes including robbery, assault and auto thefts, according to preliminary numbers collected by the Los Angeles Police Department. The decline was smaller than in previous years because of jumps in lower-level crimes such as thefts from vehicles and personal thefts.

...."The fact that Los Angeles has continued to decline, especially when several factors haven't been as good as they could be — it's remarkable, frankly," said Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at UC Irvine. "I'm puzzled."....The Police Department's ability to battle crime, she said, deserved much of the credit, but could not on its own account for the trend. Sociologists and criminologists say other likely factors include strict sentencing laws that, until recently, increased the number of people in prison; demographic shifts; and sociological influences.

....The decade of falling crime in Los Angeles — which continued during California's deep recession — has forced many researchers and law enforcement officials to rethink the once commonly held belief that crime was linked inextricably to the economy.

Lots of people think it makes sense that crime should go up when the economy goes down, but that's never really been consistently true. So it's no big surprise that crime has stayed low during our current economic downturn. As for the police department's ability to battle crime, that does deserve some of the credit. But violent crime in Los Angeles peaked more than 20 years ago, long before LA changed its policing tactics.

A big part of the answer to this mystery is almost certainly lead. Los Angeles is the car capital of the world, and lead emissions from cars rose dramatically after World War II, poisoning small children in ways that lowered both IQ and impulse control. When those kids grew up, more of them turned to violent crime. Then, in the mid-70s, unleaded gasoline took over and we slowly stopped poisoning our children. When those kids grew up in the early 90s and beyond, fewer of them turned to violent crime. This happened not just in LA, but all over the world.

But lead was almost completely removed from gasoline by 1990, and the kids from that era were fully grown by about 2010. We did nothing further in the 90s and aughts to clean up the remaining lead in our environment (mainly from old paint and lead-impregnated soil), and this means that the dramatic crime drops we've seen over the past couple of decades are now leveling out.

The good news is that this is permanent. We're no longer artificially turning our kids into monsters, so the current generation of teens and 20-somethings simply aren't as violent as they were 30 years ago. The bad news is that this was largely an accident—we initially reduced lead emissions as an unintentional byproduct of combating smog via catalytic converters—and we've never seriously tackled lead cleanup beyond that. Improved policing practices will likely keep crime rates at their current low levels, but we could do more if we wanted to. A serious effort to clean up more lead today would produced better, smarter, less violent kids 20 years from now.

If you want to read more about this, check out the latest issue of Mother Jones, which has a long article of mine on the cover about exactly this topic. It'll be online in the near future, and I'll have more to say about it then.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore) expresses his feelings on secret law.

UPDATE: Obama signed the extension of warrantless wiretapping authority into law on Sunday December 30.

There's nothing like a debate over warrantless wiretapping to clarify how the two parties really feel about government. On Friday, the Senate voted to reauthorize the government's warrantless surveillance program, with hawkish Democrats joining with Republicans to block every effort to curtail the government's sweeping spying powers. 

As the Senate debated the renewal of the government's warrantless wiretapping powers on Thursday, Republicans who have accused President Barack Obama of covering up his involvement in the death of an American ambassador urged that his administration be given sweeping spying powers. Democrats who accused George W. Bush of shredding the Constitution with warrantless wiretapping four years ago sung a different tune this week, with the administration itself quietly urging passage of the surveillance bill with no changes, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accusing her Democratic colleagues of not understanding the threat of terrorism.

"There is a view by some that this country no longer needs to fear an attack," Feinstein said. 

So what were these drastic changes sought by Feinstein's colleagues that would leave the United States open to annihilation by terrorists? They're mostly attempts to find out exactly how the changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act actually work in practice. The most radical proposal, Senator Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) amendment requiring a warrant for the government to access any digital communications, had no chance of passing but clarified just how moderate the Democrats' proposals were by comparison. 

"It's incredibly disappointing that such modest amendments that would have done nothing more than increase transparency and accountability failed to pass in the Senate," said Michelle Richardson of the ACLU.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is meant to allow the government to spy on suspected foreign agents abroad, but it is written in such a manner that it allows the government to snoop on conversations involving American citizens, as long as at least one end of the conversation involves a suspected agent of a foreign group overseas. But very few lawmakers know how the law works, or even have the staff with the necessary expertise or security clearances to figure out how it works. So when respected legislators like Feinstein take to the Senate floor to say that any changes would lead to more flaming buildings and American corpses, senators take it seriously. What this means, however, is that Congress just voted to approve a largely secret law it doesn't really understand. In the Senate, they actually voted not to know what the law does by rejecting an amendent that would have made the government state how many Americans have been spied on without a warrant.

"Americans have no way of figuring out how their laws are being interpreted," Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. "We don't expect the public to, in effect, just accept secret law."

Wyden proposed that the National Security Agency disclose an estimate of how often these powers have targeted Americans, and that if data on Americans were collected, the authorities seek a warrant before searching for their private information in NSA databases. "I guess you believe that no one is going to attack us, then it's fine to do this," Feinstein said. "I know there are people trying to attack this country all the time."

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was more direct, arguing that the Fourth Amendment only protects Americans if they're being targeted, not if the government just happens to be listening in. "Some people think that a U.S. person has a constitutional right not to have his communications with a foreign target eavesdropped by the U.S. government without a warrant," Grassley said. "But that's not how the Fourth Amendment works." Grassley is afraid Obamacare will pull the plug on your grandma, but he doesn't have any worries that the government might abuse its power to spy on Americans without a warrant.

Wyden's colleague Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wanted to force the government to issue declassified summaries of decisions made by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which not only approves secret warrants but issues rulings interpreting the breadth of the law. Court interpretation can significantly change the scope of a law that seems plainly written. Nevertheless, when Merkley argued that Americans shouldn't be subject to laws they don't understand, Feinstein mocked him by holding up a copy of the FISA law and saying "this is the law. It's not secret." 

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sought to make the warrantless surveillance law expire a year prior to end of Obama's second term, instead of five years from now. It was voted down, precisely because supporters of warrantless spying understand that the longer Congress goes without debating the law, the more normal these extraordinary powers become. Feinstein explained that she opposed Leahy's measure because "these authorities expire in 4 days." But the bill has been ready for a Senate vote since September—Wyden had been holding it up in order to get floor votes on the minor oversight amendments the Senate just crushed.

Feinstein and her Republican allies insist that the oversight of warrantless surveillance is sufficient, which is why something as basic as disclosing how many Americans have been spied on is unnecessary. As Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute points out, their argument relies on a catch-22: If there's no evidence of the government abusing its authority, that must mean it never happens. Therefore, there's no need for more oversight. If there is evidence of government abusing its authority, that also proves there's no need for more oversight—after all, the abuses were noticed.

As the debate dragged on, however, Feinstein, growing ever more frustrated, seemed to be arguing not that the government had never abused its surveillance authority but that further disclosure could lead to the abolition of the warrantless surveillance program.

"This is an effort to make that material public, and I think it's a mistake at this particular time because it will chill the program, it will make us less secure, not more secure," Feinstein said. "I know where this goes, it goes to destroy the program. I don't want to see it destroyed."

But if the program is constitutional, and the oversight is effective, what is there to be afraid of?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

In July, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did something unexpected. Democrats and Republicans were taking turns on the Senate floor debating the DISCLOSE Act, a bill written by Democrats that would drag anonymous political donors into the daylight. Republicans stood in firm opposition to the bill, leaving it short of the necessary 60 votes and so condemning it to a swift death. The floor debate, then, was academic. When Murkowski took the floor, she nitpicked the version of the DISCLOSE Act before her, but broke with her GOP colleagues by hammering the secret money sloshing around our politics. She later voted no on the bill, but her pledge to battle dark money left Democrats with a shred of hope for future reform efforts.

On Friday, Murkowski joined Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in offering for new plan to unmask secretive political groups and their dark-money donors. In a Washington Post op-ed, Murkowski and Wyden write, "At minimum, the American people deserve to know before they cast their ballots who is behind massive spending, who is funding people and organizations, and what their agendas are." More than $400 million in dark money was spent during the 2012 elections, mostly by conservative organizations—a fourfold increase from 2008. Leading dark-money groups included Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the US Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax outfit run by Grover Norquist.

The Murkowski-Wyden plan—you can read a wonky outline of it here (PDF)—would try to force politically-active nonprofits, big business trade groups, labor unions, and shell corporations to reveal the true source of their funds. In spirit, it's not all that different from the DISCLOSE Act of 2012.

Today, if a donor gives $10,000 or a $1 million to Rove's Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit, to spend on political activities, that donor stays secret. Murkowski and Wyden's plan would make Crossroads disclose that donor. To use a real example, a board member for the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks reportedly funneled more than $12 million in donations from him and his family through a pair of Tennessee corporations and then to FreedomWorks' super-PAC. The donor's identity was one of the biggest mysteries of the 2012 campaign, and it remained unsolved until the Washington Post reported on Tuesday—six weeks after Election Day—that FreedomWorks board member Richard Stephenson and his family were behind the big donations. Under Murkowski-Wyden, Stephenson's name would have come out right away.

The two senators, in their outline for new disclosure legislation, try to anticipate the landmines on the road to 60 votes. They suggest raising the limit for donor disclosure from more than $200 to more than $500 to focus on larger donors. They also carve out an exemption so that dues-paying members of, say, the NRA or the Sierra Club who aren't giving money for political activities aren't disclosed like donors giving strictly to influence elections are.

Even then, the Murkowski-Wyden plan faces long odds. A leader of the anti-regulation movement when it comes to money in politics happens to be the top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell claims such disclosure legislation is merely an attempt to intimidate donors, and he convinced his fellow Republicans to defeat similar legislation in 2010 and 2012. This latest plan may begin with bipartisan cred, a breakthrough of sorts for disclosure supporters, but the road to 60 votes means Republicans must break with McConnell—something no GOPer has been willing to do.

The absurdities of the fiscal cliff continue apace. Here is Mitch McConnell, master of the absurd:

“Nothing can move forward in regards to our budget crisis unless Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are willing to participate in coming up with a bipartisan plan,” Reid said. “So far, they are radio-silent.”

McConnell retorted that Republicans have been eager to work with Obama. After one-on-one talks between Obama and Boehner failed to produce a broad deficit-reduction package last week, McConnell said it is now the president’s responsibility to put forward a new plan. “Republicans bent over backwards,” he said. “We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang.”

....Boehner’s message was that “we were going to wait for the Senate to take up the bill that we passed six months ago,” said one Republican lawmaker who was on the call. “Quit trying to do this leadership-negotiating thing.”

Republicans bent over backwards! Boehner apparently did his bending over by never once proposing a detailed plan and never once being willing to publicly tell us what spending cuts he wanted. Then he failed to get passage of even a PR stunt and simply gave up. McConnell, for his part, did his bending over backwards by retreating to his office and never once poking his head out for four consecutive weeks.

But maybe "one Republican lawmaker" has the right idea. Why bother negotiating with McConnell, who so far has shown no inclination to want responsibility for anything? Maybe Obama and Reid should simply come up with a modestly different package than the most recent Democratic proposal and see if they can round up seven Republican votes for it. The Maine twins might vote for it. Lugar's retiring, so he might vote for it. Murkowski could maybe be bought off. Scott Brown wants some centrist cred for his next Senate run, so he might vote for it. Maybe a bit of old-fashioned horsetrading could put together 60 votes.

(Needless to say, 60 votes will be necessary, since Mitch McConnell certainly won't forego a filibuster of anything that Obama proposes. He's not willing to bend that far backward.)

After that, who knows? Maybe a bill with no fingerprints on it from the GOP leadership could pick up a couple dozen Republican votes in the House if Boehner allows it to come to the floor, as he's promised. You never know.

It's a long shot. But I wonder if it's any more of a long shot than continuing to engage with Boehner and McConnell, both of whom are obviously scared to death of doing anything other than simply rejecting every proposal Obama puts forward and then accusing Obama of "not being serious"?

Lance Cpl. Edgar Jimenezrojas, a military policeman assigned to Afghan National Civil Order Police Advisory Team, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, remains vigilant while conducting a dismounted patrol near Forward Operating Base Now Zad, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 18, 2012.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena.