2012 - %3, December

Republicans Really, Really Like to Filibuster Things

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 4:15 PM EST

Today, Mitch McConnell filibustered his own bill. That is all. 

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Offshore Tax Haven Money Could Save Us From the Fiscal Cliff

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 3:56 PM EST

Offshore tax havens—like the ones Mitt Romney has relied on—screw the federal treasury out of some $150 billion a year, but as Congress and the president haggle over where to scrimp and save, there's been nary a mention of this potential deficit-busting gold mine. Today, the consumer group USPIRG released a report detailing what we could do with all that cash.

At least 83 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations in America shield large chunks of their income from taxes by keeping it overseas, according to the Government Accountability Office. In fact, according to the USPIRG report, 30 of the nation's biggest, richest companies actually profited off the tax code between 2008 and 2010, by avoiding taxes and getting tax refunds from the government. USPIRG notes that one of the techniques Google used to save $3.1 billion over that time period is called "double Irish," and involves two Irish subsidiaries and one in the tax haven Bermuda.

Revenue vs. "Revenue"

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 2:54 PM EST

A couple of times recently I've buried a point that really deserves to be front and center. Here it is: Republicans have not agreed to increase taxes. In John Boehner's letter to President Obama on Monday, he said a grand total of two things about taxes:

  1. Republicans continue to oppose higher marginal tax rates.
  2. Instead, new revenue should come from "pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates."

You have to perform some conservative Kremlinology to decode this, but it's not really that hard. Recall that last year, during the debt ceiling talks, Boehner agreed to $800 billion in new revenue. But this turned out to be revenue in name only: It came mostly from dynamic scoring, the supply-side pixie dust that says lower tax rates supercharge economic growth and therefore produce more tax revenue automatically. The media post-mortems were all a little fuzzy on this point, but they mostly seem to suggest that the loopholes Boehner agreed to close were primarily to make up for the lower rates. The net new revenue came almost entirely from dynamic scoring.

The same thing is going on here. Boehner's letter was signed by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, but note exactly what it said. They want to close loopholes "while lowering tax rates." This suggests that they think the loophole closings will make up for the lower rates but not produce any net new revenue. That will come from the pro-growth magic of rate-lowering and base-broadening.

I know I open myself up to charges of excessive cynicism here. But Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan can prove me wrong with just a few plain words. So far they haven't, and their public letter was phrased very carefully indeed. No matter how much the Washington pundit class wants to believe it, they very decidedly haven't agreed, even in principle, to higher taxes. Anyone who thinks they have should just ask them directly.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 6, 2012

Thu Dec. 6, 2012 2:09 PM EST

A cratering charge detonates when Marines assigned to Engineer Detachment, Combat Logistics Battalion 15, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted a controlled detonation exercise at a live-fire range near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, during a routine training exercise, Nov. 25.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy R. Childers.

Sorry, But "Fiscal Cliff" is Here to Stay

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 2:09 PM EST

Ryan Cooper is unhappy that we lefties haven't been able to agree on a catchphrase to describe what will happen on January 1:

Ben Bernanke came up with the phrase "fiscal cliff," and it stuck. This phrase is deeply misleading—indeed, it was probably deliberately exaggerated—so liberals tried to come up with a more accurate catchphrase. They tried, but failed for lack of unity. Paul Waldman called it the "austerity trap." Chris Hayes called it the "fiscal curb." Paul Krugman called it the "austerity bomb." Ezra Klein, most notably, made a major push for "austerity crisis," but even the mighty Wonkblog couldn't get everyone to agree.

I think things are both better and worse than Ryan suggests. Worse, because "fiscal slope" was kinda sorta catching on well before any of these renaming initiatives started up, and we could have simply adopted that. But no: as Ryan says, we liberals just couldn't rally around a phrase that wasn't quite right. We insisted on coming up with something better.

At the same time, this really doesn't speak as poorly of liberals as Ryan thinks. I've heard versions of his complaint dozens of times, but the truth is that making up a new name for something is really, really hard. New names almost never catch on, period, and when they do it's usually organic. They don't catch on because someone runs a contest or because someone with a megaphone forces us into it. And they especially don't catch on when the new phrase sounds forced and artificial, as they almost always do.

Conservatives have had a few successes over the past couple of decades pushing new terms into the public discourse—"death tax," "partial birth abortion"—and I know that lefties are jealous of this. But it doesn't happen very often. Liberals scored a hit with "top 1 percent" last year, but that was a success because it happened organically. There was no Frank Luntzian character behind it. Likewise, I think that Dave Roberts' "climate hawk" might catch on. It's not organic, but it is pretty natural sounding. It has a chance of entering the standard lexicon because it's easy to use, doesn't require explanation, and sounds punchy.

And another thing: it always takes time for new terms to become widely used. I don't bother using any of the fiscal cliff alternatives that Ryan mentions because (a) let's be honest, they all sound stupid, and (b) I'd have to add a parenthetical explanation every time I used one of them. The fiscal cliff fight is only going to last a few months, and for better or worse, everyone knows what I'm talking about when I say fiscal cliff. There's just not enough time for an alternative to catch on.

Elliott Abrams, Massacre-Denialist, Hailed as a Statesman

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 2:04 PM EST

 This morning I received a press release with this announcement:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy will give Elliott Abrams, CFR's senior fellow for Middle East Studies, its Scholar-Statesman Award at a dinner in New York City tonight. The Scholar-Statesman Award celebrates leaders who exemplify the idea that sound scholarship and a discerning knowledge of history are essential to effective policy, as well as the advancement of peace and security in the Middle East.

I nearly choked. Why? The easiest way to explain is for me to crib and post here an article I wrote for The Nation over a decade ago:

"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial—and deadly—policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)

Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment—should it come to pass—would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America—which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.

One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.

But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.

Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.

So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."

 Abrams was rehabbed by the foreign policy crowd years ago. But he still has blood on his hands. I wonder what they'll be serving at the dinner. 

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Jim DeMint Is Resigning: Here Are His 7 Craziest Moments

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 1:04 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal broke the news Thursday morning that 61-year-old Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is leaving the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. DeMint could be giving up his Senate post as early as January, leaving South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint someone to fill out his term (cough, Stephen Colbert, cough).

In a Senate packed with off-the-wall conservative lawmakers, DeMint managed to stand out, always promising to top the craziness with…more crazy. As we bid DeMint a fond farewell, let's relive his greatest moments:

1. DeMint says gay people and unmarried women having sex shouldn't teach your children. 

According to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, DeMint said this at a South Carolina rally: "If someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn't be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who's sleeping with her boyfriend—she shouldn't be in the classroom."

2. DeMint says God doesn't like big government.

On a radio show in 2011, DeMint said: "I've said it often and I believe it—the bigger government gets, the smaller God gets. As people become more dependent on government, less dependent on God."

3. Jim DeMint doesn't want women talking about abortion on the internet.

In 2011, DeMint put an amendment into a totally unrelated spending bill that attempted to ban discussion of abortion via satellite, video-conferencing, and the internet (in other words, fully preventing women from speaking with their doctors remotely).

4. DeMint says America turning into Iran after President Obama's election (or maybe Germany?).

"Probably the most heart-wrenching experiences I've had over the last several days is when naturalized American citizens who have immigrated here from Germany, Iran, and other countries, they come up to me and they say why are we doing what so many have fled from?" DeMint told a conservative radio host in 2009 "Why don’t Americans see what we're doing?"

5. DeMint puts a hold on National Women's History Museum.

In 2010, a proposed bill would have allowed a private group to buy property on Independence Avenue to build a women's history museum (without costing taxpayers any money). DeMint was one of the bill's chief opponents, and put a hold on it.

6. DeMint confuses Chicago teacher strike with violence in the Middle East.

"On my way over, I was reading another story about a distant place where thugs had put 400,000 children out in the streets. And then I realized that was a story about the Chicago teachers strike," DeMint said at the 2012 Values Voters summit in September. "But we've got to think of good things.”

7. DeMint falsely accuses President Obama of taxing Christmas.

On Fox News in 2011, DeMint said the government was "going to charge taxes on Christmas trees so they can start another government agency to promote Christmas trees. We don't need to do that at the federal level. We can't even afford to do what we're already doing. And to add another tax to something and say we're going to create a promotion agency, it just makes you want to pull your hair out." 

This statement was in response to a division of the Department of Agriculture proposing that tree importers and producers pay 15 cents per tree, to fund a promotional campaign for Christmas. (The tax was tabled.)

No, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan Haven't Changed Their Spots

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 12:58 PM EST

Bill Galston thinks the fiscal cliffsters need to STFU:

Public discussions encourage posturing and allow die-hards to strangle compromise in its cradle. If the leaders of the parties are serious about reaching an agreement (some of their troops are not), they’ll have to shift course and enter into private, face-to-face negotiations, during which they would agree to cease tattling to the press about the transgressions of the other side. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will have to take the lead, as they did in the famously abortive “grand bargain” talks of 2011.

OK, I'll grant that. I've been mocking John Boehner for making a public proposal so vague as to be almost useless ("revenue" doesn't mean a thing until you commit to specific policies for getting it), but obviously there's a limit to how far out in front of his skis he can get with the tea-party wing of his caucus ready to pounce on his every word. The problem with Galston's suggestion is that Boehner and Obama tried private talks last year during the debt ceiling negotiations, and it was a debacle. Oh wait:

It’s understandable why both of them might be reluctant to go down this path again. Last year’s talks produced intra-party conflicts among Republicans that Boehner found hard to manage. For his part, the president reportedly believes that it was a mistake to closet himself with the Speaker and that only constant public pressure can induce the Republicans to abandon extreme positions.

Galston thinks things are different this time, but I'm not so sure. The problem isn't on the Democratic side: Obama can probably round up the votes on his side of the aisle for any deal he makes. The question is whether things have changed for Boehner. Galston thinks they have: "Some of the early Tea Party fervor has cooled, and the House Republicans are more unified around Boehner’s leadership....Both Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan signed onto his latest proposal....He speaks for his party to a greater extent than heretofore."

Maybe. It's true that there are signs that Boehner has a firmer hold on things than he did last year. The problem is that Galston is asking Democrats to take on faith the notion that Boehner can deliver on a genuine compromise proposal even if Obama ratchets down the public pressure. I'd call that a very dangerous proposition. The uncomfortable truth that everyone in Washington is tiptoeing around is that neither Eric Cantor nor Paul Ryan has explicitly said he'd be willing to raise real revenue yet. All they've signed up for is "pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates." This looks for all the world like a proposal that would lower rates, get back to revenue neutrality by imposing a few minor limits on deductions, and then add $800 billion in "revenue" from the alleged growth-powering magic of tax cuts.

If you think I'm just being nitpicky, you'd better think again. These are the kinds of distinctions that killed the debt ceiling deal last year, and they're the kinds of distinctions that people like Ryan and Cantor live for. They aren't going to agree to a real revenue increase unless they're under intense pressure, and that's only going to happen if Obama goes public and stays public. There can be plenty of private talks at the same time, but they aren't enough. Obama needs to keep pressing his advantage if he wants to keep it. Sweet reason behind closed doors isn't going to get the job done, and Galston is being naive if he truly thinks differently.

Rand Paul Doesn't Know Which Industries Actually Dominate His State

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 11:58 AM EST

The chatter that actress Ashley Judd might make a run for Senate in her home state of Kentucky has prompted preemptive vituperation from the state's Republican delegation. "She's way damn too liberal for our country, for our state," Rand Paul told radio station WMAL on Wednesday. "She hates our biggest industry, which is coal, so I say, good luck bringing the 'I hate coal message' to Kentucky."

Paul also threw in some digs about Judd, an eighth-generation Kentuckian, spending part of her time in her husband's home country, Scotland. And yes, Judd has been a vocal critic of mountain-top removal coal mining. But the comments indicate that Rand Paul doesn't know much about his state's top industries. Mining isn't the state's biggest industry. It's not even in the top ten, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (via James E. Carter IV). It's way down at number 13:

James E. Carter IV/Bureau of Economic AnalysisJames E. Carter IV/Bureau of Economic Analysis

It's all the way down there after "information," oddly enough. Mining is also not the largest industry in the ranking based on the number of people it employs; on that list, it comes in 15th.

Bold, New Republican Party Wants to Do....The Same Things They've Wanted to Do Since Goldwater

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 11:49 AM EST

Republican rising star Bobby Jindal has a quartet of bold, new ideas so fresh they'll practically moo if you try to eat them. Check them out:

  • A federal balanced budget amendment.
  • Place a cap on discretionary and mandatory federal spending.
  • A supermajority to increase taxes.
  • Term limits.

But that's not even the best part. The best part comes in the very next sentence: "Now that I’ve offended everyone in Washington...." Yeah, baby! See, Jindal's speaking truth to power, and power isn't going to be happy about it. But Jindal can take it, because fresh, bold, innovative thinking is what the new post-2012 Republican Party is all about, and they don't care who knows it.

Jeebus.