2013 - %3, June

Should Immigration Reform Be Tearing Apart the Democratic Party?

| Tue Jun. 25, 2013 8:58 AM PDT

Jonah Goldberg says he's puzzled: immigration reform is tearing apart the Republican Party, but for some reason it's not doing the same to the Democratic Party. But is he puzzled, or "puzzled"? After noting that Sen. Bernie Sanders registered some discomfort with the bill but was eventually assuaged by a $1.5-billion youth jobs program, Goldberg says this:

Last week, when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that the immigration bill would increase GNP per capita by 0.2% and slightly reduce the deficit in 20 years, Democrats hailed it as a vindication.

It fell to Republicans to note that the same CBO report assumed the legislation would reduce immigration by a mere 25% and would very modestly reduce average wages in the first decade....Liberal wonks raced to defend the bill on the wage issue by noting that average wages wouldn't necessarily go down for existing workers (if 10 people make $100 a day, and you add an 11th who makes $50 a day, the average goes down even if everyone's wages don't). But arguing about how much wages will or won't go down is a far cry from claiming wages will go up.

Goldberg says that conservatives are suspicious of the bill because it makes big promises about things like border security and tough citizenship requirements, but "the right is just not in a trusting mood." A big 10-4 to that, good buddy. But why does that leave him puzzled about liberals? The left is in about as trusting a mood as ever; the economic effects of the bill on native Americans are either tiny or zero (as Goldberg himself points out); and big chunks of the Democratic base are strongly in favor of passage. So why should immigration be tearing Dems apart?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Watch: How the NRA Distorts the Gun Debate With Disinformation

Tue Jun. 25, 2013 8:55 AM PDT

At Netroots Nation 2013, several experts joined Mother Jones senior editor Mark Follman for a wide-ranging conversation about gun violence in America, including how the National Rifle Association and its allies aim to distort the debate. Watch:

Also see our full special report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings.

Poof! The IRS Scandal Evaporates

| Tue Jun. 25, 2013 8:30 AM PDT

Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to turn the IRS mess into a full-fledged political scandal, charging that President Obama or his White House or at least liberal IRS staffers deliberately tried to punish tea partiers and other conservative outfits. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) & Co. have come up empty-handed. A Treasury Department inspector general found no evidence of political influence or bias. The head of the IRS division in question in Cincinnati identified himself to investigators as a "conservative Republican" and said politics played no role in their vetting decisions. And now it turns out, as the Associated Press reported, the IRS also singled out for extra scrutiny groups applying for nonprofit status with "progressive, "occupy," and "Israel" in their name. That is, liberal outfits were targeted, too. Oops.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have obtained a list of group names IRS staffers used when applying extra scrutiny to applications for nonprofit status. This list of words to look out for also included "Medical Marijuana," "Occupied Territory Advocacy," "Healthcare legislation," "Paying National Debt," and "Green Energy Organizations." That AP reports that the IRS used those assorted terms from August 2010 through April 2013 to target applications for special review. It is unclear how many progressive or Occupy groups received additional attention from the IRS, or if those groups faced the sort of delays experienced by dozens of conservative groups did.

But this list shows that IRS employees weren't only looking for conservative buzz words as they examined political nonprofit groups; they were on the watch for groups of all political stripes.

This IRS affair began in May when a top agency official—who was later put on leave—apologized for her staffers having targeted tea party groups. The revelation sent Washington into a frenzy, leading to a spate of hearings, hand-wringing by congressional Democrats and Republicans, and the resignation of then-acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller.

Miller's replacement, current acting commissioner Danny Werfel, ordered a halt to the use of these additional watchwords, which were found on so-called Be on the Lookout, or BOLO, lists. (IRS officials had previously ordered their underlings to stop using "tea party" and "patriots.") "There was a wide-ranging set of categories and cases that spanned a broad spectrum" on the BOLO lists, Werfel recently told reporters. Werfel described some of the words on those lists as "inappropriate."

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are fighting over the significance of the latest revelations. From the AP:

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the ways and means panel, said he was writing a letter to J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general whose audit in May detailed IRS targeting of conservatives, asking why his report did not mention other groups that were targeted.

"The audit served as the basis and impetus for a wide range of congressional investigations and this new information shows that the foundation of those investigations is flawed in a fundamental way,’’ Levin said.

Republicans said there was a distinction. A statement by the GOP staff of House ways and means said, "It is one thing to flag a group, it is quite another to repeatedly target and abuse conservative groups."

George’s report criticized the IRS for using "inappropriate criteria" to identify tea party and other conservative groups. It did not mention more liberal organizations, but in response to questions from lawmakers at congressional hearings, George said he had recently found other lists that raised concerns about other "political factors" he did not specify.

An IRS spokeswoman said that George, the Treasury Department inspector general, is reviewing how much the IRS scrutinized other groups.

So is it case closed on the IRS debacle? Not yet. The agency still needs to explain why its staffers singled out groups in this way, and how it further intends to streamline the vetting process. But is this a liberal political conspiracy? Sure doesn't look like it.

Supreme Court Hands the GOP a Gift for 2014

| Tue Jun. 25, 2013 7:58 AM PDT

Another day, another Supreme Court decision. Today the Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states to get preclearance if they change their voting procedures. Technically, they didn't rule that preclearance was unconstitutional, only that the particular formula used in the VRA is unconstitutional. This is something that's long been a hobbyhorse of Chief Justice John Roberts, who believes it's implausible that the original set of states covered in 1965 should be the exact same set covered today. He wants Congress to revisit the issue and actively decide which states require preclearance and which ones don't.

Four other justices agreed with him this time, so preclearance is dead. And given the current partisan makeup of Congress, it's vanishingly unlikely that they'll agree to a new formula.

Ten years ago I might have had a smidgen of hope that this would turn out OK. There would be abuses, but maybe not horrible, systematic ones. Today I have little of that hope left. The Republican Party has made it crystal clear that suppressing minority voting is now part of its long-term strategy, and I have little doubt that this will now include hundreds of changes to voting laws around the country that just coincidentally happen to disproportionately benefit whites. There will still be challenges to these laws, but I suspect that the number of cases will be overwhelming and progress will be molasses slow. This ruling is plainly a gift to the GOP for 2014.

UPDATE: The dominant reaction on my Twitter feed is that this decision might actually help Democrats in the short run. There might not be enough time to substantially change voting laws in time for 2014, but the fight could galvanize minority voters and produce higher Democratic turnout rates. This is pretty much what happened in 2012 in reaction to all the GOP's voter suppression laws.

This is plausible. But even if it's true, I suspect it just means this ruling is a gift for 2016 instead of 2014.

NSA Claims It Doesn't Track Movements of Cell Phone Users

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 9:22 PM PDT

Remember Terrance Brown? He's the robbery suspect in Florida who says that cell phone location data could help him prove his innocence. However, his phone company doesn't retain location data for very long, so his attorney asked the NSA to hand it over. Nobody expected the NSA to roll over easily on this, but their actual response has come as a considerable surprise:

The government's response to Lewis' request, filed with the court last Wednesday, says the NSA does not have such a capability: The agency didn't collect location data under the phone surveillance program, so there were no records to turn over, the court filing said.

"The program described in the classified [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court] order cited by the defense did not acquire such data," the filing stated, adding that "the government has no reason to believe" location data were being held by the government that could be turned over for the criminal case.

...."Given that the FISA Court order says that the government can have location data, it's quite odd to hear the government claim that it doesn't 'collect' that data," said Susan Landau, a former Sun Microsystems engineer and an expert on digital surveillance.

Mark Rasch, a former federal cyber-crime prosecutor and the owner of a technology and cyber-law company based in Bethesda, Md., [...] said he was inclined to believe the government's assertion that it wasn't collecting Americans' phone location data on a massive scale. He cited a declarative statement in the government's denial in the robbery case: "The government does not possess the records the defendant seeks."

"That’s pretty unequivocal," Rasch said.

This is very strange. Rasch is right: NSA's statement is pretty unequivocal, and it would be risky for them to flatly lie in response to a subpoena. It would be especially risky given that Edward Snowden might very well know whether they're telling the truth, and Snowden would obviously take some joy in exposing an NSA lie.

And yet, WTF? If this information exists, and they have the legal right to it, why wouldn't NSA collect it? It's obviously not because they think it would be creepy to track the movements of every cell phone user in the country. Right? So what's the deal?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The IRS Also Targeted Groups That Labeled Themselves "Progressive"

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 4:37 PM PDT

As the search for IRS perfidy continues, Democrats are finally getting into the act. Today, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a copy of the (now infamous) BOLO spreadsheet used by the IRS screening group in Cincinnati to highlight groups that analysts should "be on the lookout" for. This includes tea party groups, of course, as well as groups focused on open source software (?), medical marijuana, and—ta da!—anything with "progressive" or "blue" in its name:

Needless to say, House Dems are now a little peeved at the IRS inspector general, who released an audit report in May that highlighted all the tea party cases but said nothing about extra scrutiny being given to progressive organizations. In particular, they've asked Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp to hold a new hearing at which the IG can "explain the glaring omission in his audit report." I wouldn't hold my breath on Camp agreeing to do this, but I guess you never know.

Anyway, that's the latest.

Jumping the Shark on Edward Snowden

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 2:18 PM PDT

Some random thoughts on the latest Edward Snowden news:

Do I blame the Obama administration for charging him with a crime and seeking his extradition? Of course not. Snowden broke the law in spectacular fashion and then went as public as he possibly could about it. There's no way that any government in any country in the world wouldn't prosecute someone who did that. To leave him alone would be to tacitly give permission for any low-level intelligence worker to release anything they wanted anytime they wanted. No intelligence service can work like that.

Should Snowden have been charged with espionage? Of course not. Maybe unauthorized distribution of government property, or something along those lines. But based on what we know so far, he's plainly not a spy and plainly not working in the service of a foreign power. He's an American citizen who thinks the American surveillance state has gotten out of control.

Do I blame Snowden for leaving the country instead of sticking around to pay the price for his civil disobedience? Of course not. It's one thing to accept jail time as the price of civil disobedience if the jail time in question can be measured in months in a low-security facility. It's quite another when it can probably be measured as a life sentence in a federal Supermax facility. Snowden had every reason to fear the latter.

Should Glenn Greenwald be charged with a crime because he "aided and abetted" Snowden, as NBC's David Gregory suggested on Sunday? Of course not. A friend emailed this morning to ruminate about the "weird goings-on with Gregory," and here's how I answered:

The whole thing is even weirder than it seems at first glance. Greenwald works for the Guardian! If a guy working for the Guardian isn't a "real" reporter, who is? What's more, the Post published some of the same stuff. But no one's asking Bart Gellman if he's a spy.

It's just crazy. Lots of magazines, newspapers, and cable news channels (ahem) have specific points of view, and lots of them do crusading reporting. But no one ever says that this blackballs them from the journalist club. To hear Gregory tell it, I.F. Stone wasn't a journalist either. It's nuts.

I know, I know: Gregory was just "asking the question." Whatever. I can guarantee you that he wouldn't have asked Barton Gellman that question if he'd been a guest on the show.

Anyway, it's not coincidence that my answer to all of these questions is the same. Of course not! I'm not a deep-dyed supporter of everything Snowden has done, and I have lingering questions about his motivations, his timing, his actual knowledge of NSA programs, and his judgment. That said, some of the stuff making the rounds of the chattering classes is just crazy. Settle down, folks.

Elizabeth Warren: Why is the Government Backing Expensive Private Student Loans?

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 2:00 PM PDT

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), demanded that Ed DeMarco, the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), justify why his government agency is supporting the super-high-interest rate private students loans that are drowning many Americans in debt.

For the past few years, one of the Federal Home Loan Banks that DeMarco's agency oversees has been funding Sallie Mae, the largest provider of private student loans in the country. Warren wants DeMarco to explain why.

The Federal Home Loan Banks were "intended to bolster the banks' support for the housing market—not to be a backdoor way to subsidize highly-profitable private student lenders," Warren wrote in a letter to DeMarco sent Monday. "It is deeply worrisome that the Federal Home Loan Banks may be undermining their mission by extending billions of dollars in cheap credit to private student lenders."

Sallie Mae has an $8.5 billion credit line from one of the FHL Banks at an interest rate between 0.23 and 0.34 percent. But Sallie Mae charges students taking out loans a rate that is 25 to 40 times higher. Sallie Mae "was able to borrow at less than one-quarter of one percent interest because the government's sponsorship of the Federal Home Loan Banks allows them extraordinarily cheap access to capital," and yet took in about $2.5 billion in student loan interest last year, Warren noted.

In the letter, Warren asked for documentation detailing FHL banks' funding of Sallie Mae and other private student lenders, and any analysis the FHFA has on the impact of student debt on homeownership. (A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report found that student loan debt is a huge barrier for Americans trying to buy their first homes.)

Total student loan debt in this country currently stands at close to $1 trillion. Most of that is federal student loan debt, not private, which means those loans have lower interest rates. But that may change soon; student loan interest rates are scheduled to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. Members of Congress—including Warren—and the president have come up with a bunch of different schemes to avoid that interest-rate jump; Warren's year-long fix would give students the same close-to-zero rate that banks pay to the Federal Reserve for short term loans. But no deal is nigh.

6 Mind-Blowing Stats on How 1 Percent of the 1 Percent Now Dominate Our Elections

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 12:13 PM PDT

Here's a statistic that should jolt you awake like black coffee with three shots of espresso dropped in: In the 2012 election cycle, 28 percent of all disclosed donations—that's $1.68 billion—came from just 31,385 people. Think of them as the 1 percenters of the 1 percent, the elite of the elite, the wealthiest of the wealthy.

That's the blockbuster finding in an eye-popping new report by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan transparency advocate. The report's author, Lee Drutman, calls the 1 percent of the 1 percent "an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States." This rarefied club of donors, Drutman found, worked in high-ranking corporate positions (often in finance or law). They're clustered in New York City and Washington, DC. Most are men. You might've heard of some of them: casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Texas waste tycoon Harold Simmons, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg

Those are a few of the takeaways from Sunlight's report. Here are six more statistics (including charts) giving you what you need to know about the wealthy donors who dominate the political money game—and the lawmakers who rely on them.

(1) The median donation from the 1 percent of the 1 percent was $26,584. As the chart below shows, that's more than half the median family income in America.

Economic Policy Institute

(2) The 28.1 percent of total money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent is the most in modern history. It was 21.8 percent in 2006, and 20.5 percent in 2010.

Sunlight Foundation

(3) Megadonors are very partisan. Four out of five 1-percent-of-the-1-percent donors gave all of their money to one party or the other.

Sunlight Foundation

(4) Every single member of the House or Senate who won an election in 2012 received money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Orham Cam/Shutterstock

(5) For the 2012 elections, winning House members raised on average $1.64 million, or about $2,250 per day, during the two-year cycle. The average winning senator raised even more: $10.3 million, or $14,125 per day.

Dawid Konopka/Shutterstock

(6) Of the 435 House members elected last year, 372—more than 85 percent—received more from the 1 percent of the 1 percent than they did from every single small donor combined.

Sunlight Foundation

So what are we to make of the rise of the 1 percent of the 1 percent? Drutman makes a point similar to what I reported in my recent profile of Democratic kingmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg: We're living in an era when megadonors exert control over who runs for office, who gets elected, and what politicians say and do. "And in an era of unlimited campaign contributions," Drutman writes, "the power of the 1 percent of the 1 percent only stands to grow with each passing year."