2013 - %3, April

Obama to Nominate Former Lobbyist Tom Wheeler for FCC Chair

| Wed May 1, 2013 9:44 AM EDT

President Obama is expected to nominate Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and longtime Obama supporter, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday.

The next chairman will help steer the FCC on key issues ranging from broadband access, to net neutrality, to whether the FCC should auction off unused network airwaves to raise revenue—an idea Wheeler has previously said he supports

Wheeler's critics say he is too much of an industry advocate, especially given the 12 years he spent heading up the CTIA, a telecommunications trade group whose membership includes nearly every major industry player. Mother Jones' David Corn reported on this when Wheeler's name was first circulated back in March:

[Wheeler] is no consumer advocate, but he has this advantage: He has raised a lot of money as a campaign bundler for Obama. Wheeler is also a member in good standing with the Washington establishment; he sits on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and is a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center. During 2009, he led the Obama-Biden transition's working group overseeing science, technology, space, and arts agencies.

"He's beloved in the telecom industry," a former Obama administration official says of Wheeler. An industry newsletter notes, "having spent his entire career representing businesses, running businesses and investing in businesses, Wheeler undoubtedly will have a light regulatory touch in all matters. And that's not something you can say about most Democrats."

But Wheeler may well avoid backlash. Earlier this month, a group of former administration officials from the tech and telecom world sent Obama a letter of support praising Wheeler as someone who has "applied his expertise to the challenges of a civil society." And in Time, two industry analysts said Wheeler has picked up "helpful endorsements to cover his left flank."

The nomination also dashes hopes that Obama would pick the first woman to serve as FCC chair; former Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ambassador Jessica Rosenworcel and Obama aide Karen Kornbluh were thought to be potential nominees. 

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Ed Markey Is On Track to Replace John Kerry—With the Help of the "Green Billionaire"

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 11:43 PM EDT
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Congressman Ed Markey is one step closer to replacing Secretary of State John Kerry in the US Senate. On Tuesday, he cruised past Stephen Lynch, a fellow Democratic congressman, in the special Democratic primary in Massachusetts to fill Kerry's vacated seat. With nearly all precincts reporting, Markey held a commanding lead of 57 percent to 43 percent over Lynch.

Markey will face ex-Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez in a special general election to be held in late June. Gomez is a political newcomer. His only prior run for office was a bid to win a seat on the board of selectmen in tiny Cohasset, Mass. (He lost.) That didn't stop Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC, from describing Gomez as "Mitt Romney Jr.," a businessman-turned-politician who wants to cut benefits for senior citizens and lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Gomez, for his part, has pledged to "reboot" Congress by instituting, among other changes, term limits for politicians and a lifetime ban on lobbying.

Markey has carved out a liberal record during his 20 terms in the House—a long political career that his opponents will no doubt use against him. Over those years, he has established a reputation as one of Congress' leading advocates for protecting the environment and fighting climate change. He co-authored one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation to address climate change, the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009, which failed to make it through Congress.

Markey's strong environmental record helps explain why he got an assist in his win over Lynch from the San Francisco hedge fund investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer. Despite Markey and Lynch agreeing to a "People's Pledge" to keep outside money out of their race, Steyer's NextGen super-PAC spent more than $400,000 on online ads and microtargeting, often hammering Lynch over his support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Steyer's involvement added some drama to a off-year primary with a lackluster turnout.

Steyer says he will use his fortune, estimated at $1.4 billion, to drag the issue of climate change into the spotlight in American politics and to combat the influence of climate change deniers and the oil lobby. He's taking a similar approach to the climate issue that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg takes on gun control: supporting candidates who see things his way and attacking those who do not. "Really, what we're trying to do is to make a point that people who make good decisions on this should be rewarded, and people should be aware that if they do the wrong thing, the American voters are watching and they will be punished," Steyer told the Hill.

Long active in California politics, the Markey-Lynch race was Steyer's first big foray as an outside spender into a marquee Congressional race. He drew howls with an open letter giving Lynch a deadline of "high noon" to flip his position on the Keystone pipeline. But by the end of the campaign, Steyer's spending appeared to have boosted Markey (even if the veteran congressman didn't really need the help to win Tuesday's primary). And a dedicated environmentalist is now on the cusp of filling John Kerry's old seat—exactly what Steyer wants.

Steyer has yet to say if he'll go after Gabriel Gomez in the general election. But he's one for one so far, and given every indication he plans to spend a lot more money in the months and years ahead.

Quote of the Day: Let's Go To War In Syria

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 7:43 PM EDT

From John McCain and Lindsey Graham, beating the drums for yet another military intervention in the Middle East:

There are many options at our disposal, including military options short of boots on the ground in Syria, that can make a positive impact on this crisis, which is destabilizing the region.

I have one question for McCain and Graham about this: what if these "options" don't work? What's next? Have they given this even a moment's thought?

I know this is hardly a novel insight, but the crisis in Syria has really rubbed my nose in just how capriciously conservatives have come to treat war. They no longer even consider it an especially difficult decision to make, let alone a last resort. It's just a routine extension of foreign policy.

The chances that an American intervention could have a positive outcome in Syria strike me as close to zero. Nevertheless, the war crowd is raring to dive in anyway. They have no idea what we should do; no idea what the outcome might be; and most importantly, seemingly no idea of how many ways the entire operation could go wrong. All they know is that there's a bad guy somewhere in the vicinity of Israel, so we ought to go in and kick his ass.

It's astonishing. I'm no isolationist, and I'm no pacifist. But at the very least I think war should be treated as a deadly serious matter. When did it become such a casual thing?

Is the Obama Administration About to Block Plan B Access? (UPDATED)

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 6:57 PM EDT

Update, (05/01/2013, 5:30 p.m. PDT): Late Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced that it will in fact appeal Federal District Court Judge Edward R. Korman's April 5 order to make Plan B One-Step available to all women of reproductive age without a prescription. The DOJ has also asked Judge Korman to stay his order, pending the results of their appeal.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the emergency contraception drug Plan B One-Step must be made available over the counter to everyone, after the Department of Health and Human Services had decided to make it only available to women older than 16. But a decision that the Food and Drug Administration issued Tuesday afternoon has left some wondering if the Obama administration plans to challenge Federal District Court Judge Edward R. Korman's April 5 decision.

Teva Women's Health Inc., which makes the drug, had initially applied to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter for all females of reproductive age, but the FDA denied that request back in December 2011. The company then submitted an amended application asking the FDA to approve Plan B One-Step for sale without a prescription for women 15 years of age and older, which is what today's decision approved.

From the FDA's release (emphasis theirs):

The product will now be labeled "not for sale to those under 15 years of age *proof of age required* not for sale where age cannot be verified." Plan B One-Step will be packaged with a product code prompting a cashier to request and verify the customer’s age. A customer who cannot provide age verification will not be able to purchase the product. In addition, Teva has arranged to have a security tag placed on all product cartons to prevent theft.
"These are daunting and sometimes insurmountable hoops women are forced to jump through in time-sensitive circumstances."

While Tuesday's decision only applies to one brand of emergency contraception and does lower the age barrier for that brand, it does not remove the age requirement entirely. It also maintains an ID requirement to purchase the product. These restrictions, reproductive rights groups have argued, create a barrier to all women who want to buy the drug, not just women under 15, since it means that in practice the drug is only available to those with a government-issued ID. The FDA stipulated in the release that this decision is "is independent of" the lawsuit, that Teva had submitted the application before the judge's decision, and the announcement "is not intended to address the judge's ruling."

But its release has reproductive rights advocates wondering if this is a precedent for how the Obama administration intends deal with emergency contraception. The judge's decision required the FDA to make emergency contraception available over-the-counter for everyone by May 6. If the Obama administration plans to abide by the court's ruling, some advocates wondered, why make this announcement at all?

"The FDA is under a federal court order that makes it crystal clear that emergency contraception must be made available over the counter, without restriction to women of all ages by next Monday," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit prompting the judge's decision. "These are daunting and sometimes insurmountable hoops women are forced to jump through in time-sensitive circumstances, and we will continue our battle in court to remove these arbitrary restrictions on emergency contraception for all women."

A spokesman at the FDA referred Mother Jones to the Department of Justice, which is handling the lawsuit, for comment on the administration's plans on the court decision. "The Department of Justice is considering next steps in the litigation," said the FDA's in its release. "In the meantime, the FDA took independent action to approve the pending application on Plan B One-Step for use without a prescription by women 15 years of age or older."

How Michael Bloomberg Is Like Kanye West

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 4:20 PM EDT

New York City has become the nation's leader in stop-and-frisk, the growing practice of stopping mostly young, mostly minority Americans on the street and searching them without a warrant or probable cause. The city is currently attempting to defend the controversial policy against a lawsuit that alleges that the New York Police Department is violating New Yorkers' constitutional rights by stopping and searching people without adequate justification. At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a new tack in defending stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately affects people of color: He implied critics of the policy are racist.

As New York's Dan Amira writes, Bloomberg's comments echoed rapper Kanye West's claim, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that George W. Bush didn't care about black people. That was a black person accusing a white president of not caring about black people. This is a white mayor telling black people they don't care about black people. (Call it a double-reverse Kanye).

Here's the relevant excerpt, flagged by Amira, in which Bloomberg not only attacks the New York Times but also the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is litigating the stop and frisk case:

Last week Bronx resident Alphonza Bryant was shot and killed while standing with friends near his home. He was 17. Like most murder victims in our city, he was a minority…Alphonza was a person—he had a loving mother, family, friends. It does not appear that he was even the intended target of the shooters. He was just a victim of too many guns on our streets. But after his murder there was no outrage from the Center for Constitutional Rights or the NYCLU. There was not even a mention of his murder in our paper of record, the New York Times. "All the news that's fit to print" did not include the murder of 17-year-old Alphonza Bryant. Do you think that if a white, 17-year-old prep student from Manhattan had been murdered, the Times would have ignored it? Me neither. I believe that the life of every 17-year-old and every child and every adult is precious.

There are 11 plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk case currently on trial in federal district court, none of whom is white. According to Bloomberg, if minorities don't want to their freedom of movement restricted because of their skin color, it's just because they're racist…against themselves. A New York Times spokeswoman told Politico that Bloomberg's criticism of the paper was "absurd."

Here's who is actually affected by stop and frisk:

And here's how many weapons the practice takes off the streets compared to the number of people who are stopped:

As the judge presiding over the stop-and-frisk case, Shira Scheindlin, has said, the case is not about whether or not stop-and-frisk is effective. It's about whether the policy violates New Yorkers' constitutional rights. A policy can be "effective" and still be illegal because it doesn't recognize those rights. Surely Bloomberg can understand that.

Check out the rest of our stop-and-frisk charts here.

New Obamacare Application Demonstrates the Power of Framing

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 3:43 PM EDT

You may have heard that after receiving mountains of criticism for its 21-page first draft, HHS released a new, streamlined application form for Obamacare today. So, hooray, right? Sort of. Here's my take on the original form:

In fairness, there's a single 2-page section you have to fill out, and then there are five more 2-page sections for other members of your family. So sure, it might be long if you have a big family, but a lot of it is repetition. And if you're just a single earner? Then aside from instructions, there's really only about four pages (five if you're an American Indian or Alaska Native): one page of basic contact information, two pages of income information, and one page of current insurance information.

And here is Ezra Klein's description of the new form:

Where the draft form was a hefty 21 pages, the new form is a svelte 5 pages....The new form is short because it's only for a single adult. But if you head to the HHS Web site, you can find the new form for family coverage. It, too, is shorter: A mere 12 pages rather than 21. But it only includes the forms for two people. If your family includes more than two people, the form advises you to "make a copy of Step 2: Person 2 (pages 4 and 5) and complete."

The result is that the new form for a family of six is 20 pages long and includes a substantial amount of time spent in front of a copier.

In other words, the new form is actually about the same as the old form. The fact that it seems shorter is merely an example of the power of framing. The default for the old form was 21 pages, which could be reduced to four if you were a single earner. The default for the new form is five pages, which can be expanded to 20 if you have a big family. Which one sounds better?

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How to Be a Good Neocon When It Comes to Syria

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 3:32 PM EDT
A Free Syrian Army rebel holds his position during fighting in the strategic village of Aldoreneh, Syria, in December 2012.

What do the most hawkish neocons desire in Syria? A full US military presence in the air and on the ground.

In recent days, hawks on the right (and the left) have pumped up the volume in calling for US military action in Syria. Last week, President Barack Obama sent a letter to key members of Congress saying that US intelligence has obtained evidence of "small-scale" use of chemical weapons, presumably by forces associated with the Syrian government. But the White House has noted that the "chain of custody" for these weapons hadn't been confirmed and that further corroboration was needed. The use of any chemical weapons in Syria by government forces would violate the "red line" Obama declared last year.

But the president in the past few days, most notably at his press conference on Tuesday, has stated that he intends to proceed deliberatively and that more information is necessary before reaching a firm conclusion about the use of chemical weapons. He also said at the press conference that if confirmation is obtained, it would be a "game changer" for the "international community"—that is, not a cause for immediate unilateral US military action—and that it would cause him to "rethink the range of options." In recent days, White House aides have told me that possible responses (for which Obama would seek support at the United Nations and the Arab League) could include boosting or changing the nature of the now-nonlethal aid being provided to anti-government rebels or a "limited" military strike on a target related to chemical weapons or of symbolic or strategic importance to Damascus. "There are no easy answers," more than one White House aide has said with a sigh, noting that many rebels are now tied to Al Qaeda or other extremists and the Syrian government maintains a state-of-the-art air defense system.

The usual hawks, though, are pushing for immediate and elaborate military intervention—without always being specific. On ABC's This Week, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chair of the House intelligence committee, said the red line "cannot be a dotted line" and "some action needs to be taken." On CBS's Face the Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) maintained "there's a growing consensus in the US Senate that the United States should get involved." And several Democrats have echoed the call for doing something in response to the latest reports on chemical weapons. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said "action must be taken." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "I myself think that we have tolerated for too long all of the assaults on the Syrian people made by its own government. I think we have to take it to the next step." But, she added, "That does not mean troops on the ground."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), while fervently urging military intervention, agreed no US troops should intrude upon Syrian territory. He called for an international force that would locate and secure chemical weapons in Syria. "There are a number of caches of these chemical weapons," he said. "They cannot fail into the hands of the jihadists." He repeated his proposal for establishing a no-fly zone and providing arms to the rebels, who already have been receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are each eager to back the Sunni opposition fighting the Alawites of Bashar al-Assad's regime. McCain, though, did caution against placing US "boots on the ground in Syria," contending "that would turn the people against us." Even neocon favorite John Bolton, in a Wall Street Journal article slamming Obama for, yes, foreign policy fecklessness, pointed out that military action aimed at Syrian chemical weapons is an iffy propsect: "[T]he humanitarian costs of chemical-weapons use inside Syria are potentially high, but so are the risks to American and allied forces trying to destroy or seize chemical weapons, given the dangers and complexities involved." (He also noted "the unpleasant fact that the opposition is thick with terrorists—including al Qaeda—and radical Islamicists.")

But real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil. After Obama's press conference, a publicist for the American Center for Democracy shot out a press release touting the group's director, Rachel Ehrenfeld, and her proposals for action in Syria. She has three simple steps for the United States: bypass the United Nations and impose a no-fly zone in Syria; stop giving arms to rebels associated with Al Qaeda; and deploy US troops within Syria to secure chemical-weapons facilities. Given that Syria probably has scores, if not hundreds, of chemical-weapons sites, such a force would entail tens of thousands of US troops, perhaps hundreds of thousands. And these soldiers would likely have to fight their way to these sites. (No cake-walking here.)

Her proposal would entail invading Syria with a massive force of US troops. But Ehrenfeld's position is not that surprising, considering the board members and advisers for her American Center for Democracy. They include Richard Perle, one of the most hawkish neocons, who led the cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq, and former CIA chief R. James Woolsey, who after 9/11 promoted the neoconnish conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein was the secret puppet master controlling Al Qaeda. On the ACD's list of advisers are retired Lt. General Thomas McInerney and retired Maj. General Paul Vallely, who were each over-the-top supporters of the Iraq War on Fox News.

One sign that Syria is indeed a hard case is that the neocons and the usual hawks are not entirely united. They are torn over whether to arm the anti-Assad forces, substantial portions of which are aligned with jihadists and extremists hostile to the United States, Israel, and the West. Some are squeamish about sending in US troops. Yet Bill Kristol, the son-of-the-godfather of the neocons, a few days ago denounced Obama's reluctance to take military action in Syria and proclaimed, "No one wants to start wars, but you've got to do what you've got to do." Ehrenfeld and the American Center for Democracy are demonstrating that the most hawkish neocons are ready to heed Kristol and go all-out in Syria. They want American boots on the ground, and they're not likely to stop squawking until there is an invasion.

Obama Is Right About Gitmo: It's Bad for Us All

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 2:57 PM EDT

"It's not a surprise to me that we are having problems at Guantanamo," President Obama said on Tuesday, reiterating that the prison needs to be closed. It makes cooperation with allies more difficult, he said, also noting that Guantanamo is unsafe and too expensive. "I am going to go back at this," he said, "I am going to reengage with Congress that this is not in the best interest of the American people."

America's so-called war on terror has always been fundamentally flawed. Even the invasion of Afghanistan, which struck many as a sensible response to 9/11, felt like the beginning of something terrible: a war against an idea, rather than a global crime-fighting effort against a particularly ruthless organized crime organization. The notion that waging a war could put an end to the phenomenon of terrorism has always been naive, and it's left many innocents dead in its wake.

More Than Likely, President Obama Isn't an Idiot

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 1:30 PM EDT

President Obama said today that he believes there are some Republicans in Congress who'd like to compromise with him to enact "common sense" solutions to America's problems:

But they're worried about their politics. It's tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They're worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what's going to be best for the country. But it's going to take some time.

Ed Kilgore isn't impressed:

Good luck with that, Mr. President. I suppose "permission structure" means assembling enough conservative support, and/or framing legislation so that it addresses the concerns of "the base" (e.g., border enforcement on immigration) in a way that makes bipartisanship possible. But as we saw in the supreme example of the Affordable Care Act, even adopting conservative policy prescriptions right out of the Heritage Foundation playbook, as implemented by the man who would become the next GOP presidential nomination, didn't prevent them from being demonized as representing the imposition of an alien "European-style" "government takeover of health care" aimed at totalitarianism and the slaughter of old people.

I'm sympathetic, because I agree. I don't think that Republicans have declined to make a budget deal because Obama didn't schmooze them enough, or because they didn't understand what he was offering, or because Democrats haven't framed their compromise proposals quite right. Republicans have declined to make a deal because they don't like any of the deals Obama is willing to make. Full stop.

Unfortunately, I think Ed falls into the same trap when he suggests that Obama's dinners with senators have gone quite far enough, thankyouverymuch. Instead, he says, "I'd recommend about four straight speeches about filibuster reform, followed by four straight speeches on what the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act will actually mean for actual people. At a minimum, a Plan B to deploy if his umpteenth effort at bipartisanship fails is in order."

The problem is that this almost certainly won't work either. Obama made a full-court speechifying press on gun legislation, for example, and it had no effect at all. It wasn't enough to pass even the watered-down Manchin-Toomey amendment, a bill that threw in so many goodies for gun owners that it might actually have been a net negative for gun control.

All of which gets us to the guts of the problem: most likely, nothing is going to work. But if you're the president, you can't say that. You can't even act like it. You have to go out day after day after day insisting that progress is possible and deals can be made. This gets you lots of flak from fellow lefties who think it displays terminal naiveté, but what choice do you have? Obama pretty obviously understands everything that his lefty critics understand—he's not an idiot, and this is hardly rocket science, after all—but he also understands one other thing: he can't admit it. I imagine it's frustrating as hell. But like it or not, presidents have to keep their chin up in public and keep trying to make things happen, even if they know perfectly well that success is unlikely. Welcome to hell.

WATCH: A Conversation With Climate Scientist Michael Mann

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

One of the chief scientists behind the famous "hockey stick" graph, Michael Mann is among the most influential climate researchers in the United States.

He's also, perhaps, the most regularly attacked.

It started with swipes at the hockey stick—the graph seemed to show global warming so unequivocally that skeptics made it their number one target. The furor became even more intense when some of Mann's emails were exposed in the "ClimateGate" pseudo-scandal. Now, Mann receives regular threats and has found his personal emails pursued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And all of this has only made Michael Mann more outspoken.

At the next Climate Desk Live event, Mann and host Chris Mooney will discuss new research that reaffirms the validity of the hockey stick. They'll also talk about public opinion on climate change—and why Mann believes it's changing.

Please join us:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to cdl@climatedesk.org