2013 - %3, April

After MoJo Story, Treasury Department Clarifies Its Stance on Financial Reform Bills

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 11:13 AM EDT
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew
This post has been updated.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story on how newly-minted Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is reluctant to take a stand against a series of Wall Street deregulation bills now being considered by the House Financial Services Committee. After the story pubbed, a spokeswoman for Treasury got in touch with Mother Jones to clarify its position.

Last year, Geithner slammed a series of seven bills that would have deregulated Wall Street banks. Those bills never made it to the Senate before the last Congress ended, but a spate of nearly identical bills are being considered again. When asked by Mother Jones whether Lew would echo Geithner's opposition to them, Lew's office had no comment, but pointed to recent testimony by another Treasury official warning against messing with the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, the sweeping 2010 law aimed at preventing another 2008-style financial crisis.

Once the story started making the rounds, a spokeswoman for Lew called Mother Jones. "Of course the Treasury secretary would oppose any effort to weaken Wall Street reform," she said. She pointed to Lew's recent comments on Bloomberg television. "The purpose of Dodd-Frank was to make sure the American taxpayer would never again be in the position where they had to step in when banks failed," he told the news channel. "We are committed to that purpose."

Lew's spokeswoman also pointed out that Geithner made his statement condemning the bills last year after several of the them had already moved out of committee, and some had passed the House. "We didn't send the letter until after committee mark up, not while the bills were still in committee," she said. "It doesn't mean it won't happen." Reformers complain that silence—or stalling, as it may be—on Lew's part corresponds with Obama administration's general reluctance to protect Dodd-Frank from attacks on all sides, whether that be in the courts, or regulatory agencies, or in Congress.

The seven deregulatory bills have been presented as technical fixes to Dodd-Frank, but most of them aren't. One bill would allow certain derivatives that are traded among a corporation's various affiliates to be exempt from almost all new Dodd-Frank regulations. Another measure would expand the types of trading risks that banks can take on. A third bill would allow big multinational US banks to escape US regulations by operating through international arms.

Financial reform advocates say it's way too early to alter Dodd-Frank, because even though it is technically the law of the land, regulatory agencies have yet to finish crafting it into rules that can be enforced. Whatever Lew's reasons for waiting to denounce lawmakers' efforts to gut Wall Street reform, reform advocates are hoping he'll stick to a recent promise his spokeswoman pointed to: "We have to finish implementing [Dodd-Frank]," he said on CNBC. "I'm committed to using the authority that I have to drive that process forward."

Update: After this story, the Treasury Department got in touch with Mother Jones to further reiterate its support for Dodd-Frank.

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Banks Continue to Scaremonger Over Nonexistent Down Payment Requirements

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

Are banks refusing to make loans unless buyers put up a big down payment? Apparently so. Will this hurt the recovering housing market? Maybe. Is this all due to restrictive Dodd-Frank rules that ought to be discarded? Nope. Read on for the real story.

It turns out that Dodd-Frank allows banks to make any kind of loans they want. What it does say, though, is that if a loan fails to conform to its rules—one of which is a 20 percent down payment—then the issuing bank can't just bundle up the entire loan and immediately sell it off. It has to keep a 5 percent stake. Felix Salmon comments:

The question about high down payment mortgages is a relatively arcane backwater of financial underwriting, and we can leave it to the statisticians and bond investors to decide just how much, if at all, such down payments reduce defaults. Instead, we should be concentrating on the banks here, the institutions which seem to be entirely unwilling to underwrite any mortgage at all, unless and until they’re allowed to flip the entire thing, 100%, to bond investors, for a quick, risk-free profit.

This violates common sense. If the bank is underwriting the loan, the bank should retain at least a tiny amount of the risk in that loan. Indeed, if I were a bond investor, I would as a matter of course require extra yield on any loans which were sold by a bank without any skin in the game at all. After all, there’s not much point in being assiduous about your underwriting if you’re just going to sell the entire loan anyway.

Right. The whole point here is not to prevent banks from making whatever kind of loans they want. The point is to force them to have some skin in the game. If they want to lower their underwriting standards, that's fine. But if they do, they have to keep some of the risk for themselves. This acts as an incentive to be careful about who they make loans to, instead of returning to the Wild West of the aughts, when underwriting standards went completely to hell and fraudulent loans were made by the millions. That happened because the loan issuers didn't care: they were just going to bundle up the loans and sell them off anyway. Now they can't. As Felix says, if banks don't like this, we really ought to be asking, "Why not?"

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 25, 2013

Thu Apr. 25, 2013 10:44 AM EDT

Pfc. Ivan Ibarra and Pfc. Alfredo Hidalgo, both of Company C "Chaos," 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, Combined Task Force 4-2, provide security during a clearing operation April 10 in the Panjwa'i district of Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth, 4th SBCT, 2nd Infantry Division Public Affairs Office.

8 Things You Won't See at the George W. Bush Presidential Library

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
W.

"Eight years was awesome and I was famous and I was powerful."—Former President George W. Bush, July 2012

On Thursday, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be officially dedicated at Southern Methodist University, a school attended by the likes of former first lady Laura Bush, actor Powers Boothe, and Kourtney Kardashian. The invitation-only event will be attended by President Obama, before he visits a memorial at Baylor University for victims of the West, Texas, plant explosion. A spokesperson says attendance at the library dedication is expected to be in the thousands.

Chart: Here Are the 18 House Democrats Who Haven't Endorsed Marriage Equality

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Since mid-March, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed marriage equality in a YouTube video, 11 Democratic senators have formalized their "evolution" on the issue in a series of interviews, statements, Facebook posts, and Tumblr entries. Only three Democratic senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—have yet to officially come out in support of gay marriage.

While the Senate holdouts hail from states that voted for Mitt Romney last fall, their 18 counterparts in the House come mostly from districts that President Obama won in 2012—in some cases overwhelmingly—even though the majority hail from red states. Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), David Scott (D-Ga.), and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) all represent heavily black districts in the Deep South that Obama won by 30 points or more.

Richmond is a particularly interesting case. Although he told the Hill's Cameron Joseph that he is a "proponent of equal rights," he did not explicitly endorse marriage equality. Meanwhile, his New Orleans district, where 76 percent of voters cast for Obama, includes one of the largest gay communities in the South and is home to the annual LGBT "Southern Decadence" festival. In a statement provided to Mother Jones, Richmond said he supported equal rights, but did not respond specifically to the question of marriage:

I am a firm proponent of equal rights and support efforts to end prejudice against all human beings. A person's decision concerning who they commit their life to should be respected regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference. Our collective goal as Americans should be to strive to treat all people with decency and fairness.

Here's the breakdown of the Democratic holdouts, and how Obama fared in their districts last fall.

Correction: Costa formally endorsed marriage equality on April 18, before this story was published.

Finally, Congress Finds Something to Agree About

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 12:18 AM EDT

Congress is finally being roused to do something about the sequester. Part of it, anyway:

Complaints about air-travel delays in recent days have prompted Democrats in Congress to reconsider their strategy for dealing with across-the-board spending cuts.

...."We have to admit that some things are very problematic," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), who on Wednesday introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) designed to give the Department of Transportation more flexibility to manage the cuts with the goal of reducing furloughs at the FAA....Another Democrat, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, on Wednesday announced legislation that would reinstate air-traffic controllers using funds generated by ending a tax break for corporate jets. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said he would prefer to generate additional user fees to keep the travel system running at full capacity for the next five months.

"The public's going to be furious when they find out that this could have been prevented," said Sen. Dan Coats (R., Ind.), who supports the bipartisan proposal to give the Department of Transportation more flexibility in dealing with the FAA cuts. The aviation agency has said it can't avoid furloughs in the course of complying with the mandated budget cuts.

The tediously obvious point to make about this is that Congress can't do much more than yawn about cuts to services for the poor, but a few days of air traffic delays and they're practically tripping over themselves to offer up solutions. Why is this? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Flight delays affect lawmakers themselves, and they're not happy about being personally inconvenienced.
  • Flight delays affect the rich and the upper middle class, and as Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have taught us, these are the only voters that legislators actually care about.
  • Flight delays affect the media, so they write about it relentlessly.
  • Flight delays are an annoyance for everyone who flies. Other cutbacks are parceled out differently: most beneficiaries continue to get full benefits, while a small percentage lose access completely.
  • Flight delays are random, which adds to their annoyance.
  • Airport havoc is just generally more visible than most things.

You will be unsurprised to learn that I mostly chalk this up to items 1-3, especially item 2. Feel free to argue in comments.

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Why Obama Fails to Get Republican Votes, Part Infinity

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

Today, Dave Weigel reads Olympia Snowe's upcoming memoir so we don't have to. In particular, he highlights just how hard President Obama worked to win her support for Obamacare:

As woe-is-the-Republic texts by retired moderates go, it's got nothing on 2012's Arlen Specter offering....But it does tell us just how hard the president flop-sweated to bring Snowe into the cloture vote for health care. Snowe recounts a conversation with POTUS after she approved of the Baucus version of reform in committee....Obama kept calling, reaching Snowe "more than a dozen times," meeting with her in person eight times. The final meeting occured five days before the Senate's cloture vote, in 2009.

That's more than 20 meetings with Snowe! And she was a famous moderate. But she voted against the bill anyway.

Is this because Obama didn't twist her arm hard enough? Wasn't willing to cut a deal with her? Or because he just sucks at persuading people? Maybe. But you wilfully ignore Occam's razor at your own risk. The more likely answer, if you want to avoid being cut to ribbons, is simply that no Republican was ever going to vote for Obamacare, full stop. No amount of sweet talking, not from Obama, not from Joe Biden, not from Harry Reid, and not from anyone else, was ever going to change that. It explains everything that happened in the simplest and most persuasive manner possible.

Rinse and repeat for nearly every other piece of significant legislation of the past four years. And now, grasshopper, at last you understand.

Washington Post Wastes $125! News at 11!

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 1:45 PM EDT

Here's the lead headline at the Washington Post right now:

Feds spend at least $890,000 on fees for empty accounts

This kind of stuff drives me crazy because it preys on the innumeracy of the general public. Should agencies be more careful about shutting down bank accounts they no longer use? Sure. And does reporter David Fahrenthold acknowledge that the money involved is "a tiny fraction of the federal budget"? Yes he does.

But seriously, folks, "tiny fraction" barely even begins to describe this. In numbers, it represents about 0.000025 percent of the federal budget. But even that's too small a number to really get a feel for, so let's put this into terms that the Washington Post can understand.

Annual revenues at the Washington Post hover somewhere around $500 million. So how much is 0.000025 percent of that? Answer: $125. Would the Washington Post run a lengthy story about two empty bank accounts that the Washington Post hasn't closed yet, which cost the Washington Post's shareholders $125? No. The story is so self-evidently ridiculous that they'd laugh at anyone foolish enough to even mention it.

Look, I get it. The empty bank accounts are just being used as an example of "old bugs, built into the machine of government, that make spending money seem easier than saving it." The problem is that dumb stuff like this is what convinces people that government is wantonly wasteful, when the fact is that every corporation in America has inefficiencies this large. It's just part of human beings running a human organization.

And focusing on this stuff is lazy. If you want to demonstrate that the federal government wastes money, then write a story about actual, substantial waste. Is that too hard? If the government truly is wasteful, it shouldn't be. In a $3.5 trillion operation there ought to be dozens, even hundreds, of easy examples that cost real money. If there aren't, then perhaps the real story is that the federal government is actually about as efficient as any other big organization.

The basic problem here is that it's hard to grapple with the sheer size of the numbers involved. Any corporation in America that kept wasteful spending down to 1 percent would be pretty happy. That number represents a tightly run ship. But the federal government is so large that 1 percent waste amounts to about $35 billion. That's a scary sounding number, but in fact, it's pretty small. The truth is that if you can't dig up at least that amount in wasteful spending—not spending you dislike, but actual wasteful spending—you don't have much of a story.

House Republicans Introduce Yet Another Cunning Plot to Destroy Obamacare

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 12:15 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore points us today to the latest state-of-the-art healthcare thinking from conservatives. House Republicans have a plan to take money away from Obamacare implementation and shift it to a high-risk pool that's currently underfunded. Some conservatives are apparently objecting to this because they think it "fixes" Obamacare and they want nothing to do with that. One of the bill's supporters sets them straight:

Instead, it effectively cannibalizes ObamaCare to impede its implementation. The bill would transfer $4,000,000,000 (four billion dollars) from an ObamaCare implementation slush fund to a program called the Pre-Existing Condition Plan, or PCIP. The slush fund is a big pot of money the Administration is using to set up exchanges in states that refuse to set them up (a resistance we've strongly encouraged). 

....PCIP is not, in itself, a good program. But if Congress had enacted only PCIP in 2010, instead of ObamaCare, America would be in a much, much better place today. Now, I agree with those conservatives who hold that preex pool programs should be state- rather than federally run. But the harm here is slight, because PCIP is scheduled to expire on December 31st of this year. It’s a temporary subsidy, remember.

There's an almost charming honesty to this. Here's the plan:

  1. Take money away from the program to set up federal exchanges.
  2. Use the money to temporarily fund an admittedly crappy program.
  3. Victory! By 2014, the crappy program will be gone and federal exchanges won't exist. Obamacare will be in tatters.

I can't respond too much better than Ed: "Pretty plain, eh? Give sick people without insurance temporary access to crappy private plans at exorbitant rates as part of a strategy aimed at pulling the rug out from under them entirely at the end of the year, all the while mewling about one's concern for sick people."

I hear a lot these days about "reformist" conservatives who are trying to move the Republican Party in a new, more serious direction. I've become pretty skeptical of this whole movement, which seems to be about an inch deep, but I'd be a lot less skeptical if they took on nonsense like this and actually fought it.

Sunnis Are Awakening Once Again in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 11:45 AM EDT

The latest from Iraq:

Security forces for the Shiite-led Iraqi government raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on Tuesday, igniting violence around the country that left at least 36 people dead.

The unrest led two Sunni officials to resign from the government and risked pushing the country's Sunni provinces into an open revolt against Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite. The situation looked to be the gravest moment for Iraq since the last U.S. combat troops left in December 2011.

...."A minority of hard-liners are using these protesters as human shields and have infiltrated these demonstrations. They want to drag the country into a civil war between the Sunni and Shiites," said lawmaker Sami Askari, who is close to Maliki. "The majority [of Iraqis] reject this."

But even as Askari and others vowed to stave off disaster, the government appeared hobbled by mistrust. Kurds have boycotted the Cabinet along with most Sunnis. The Sunni education minister, Mohammed Tamim, resigned Tuesday after trying to broker a peaceful resolution between the protesters and security forces in the hours before the early-morning raid. The minister of technology, Abdul Kareem Samarrai, also resigned.

This is all Obama's fault, amiright? George Bush—currently enjoying a sudden resurgence of love from conservatives this week—was right on the verge of working everything out and bringing peace and harmony to Iraq when Obama was elected and ruined everything. That's the story I've been hearing for the past couple of years from the neocon rump, anyway.