When it comes to the Bush White House's decision to withhold from the public Dick Cheney's interview with FBI agents investigating the CIA leak case, the Obama administration says its predecessor did the right thing. And it's fighting hard to do the same.

On Wednesday night, in another move that puts the administration on the side of secrecy over openness, Obama's Justice Department filed a memo supporting its ongoing opposition to a lawsuit requesting the release of the Cheney interview. This memo included a declaration from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who said that if the Cheney interview is made public it could cause public officials in the future to not cooperate with criminal investigations.

Breuer, who heads the department's criminal division, noted:

As a general matter, the non-public nature of law enforcement interviews can be a significant factor in securing the voluntary cooperation of witnesses. Indeed, it is not uncommon for prosecutors and law enforcement investigators to inform witnesses that, subject to applicable statutes, regulations and rules, they will attempt to maintain the confidentiality of information provided. A non-public interview can be particularly important in gaining the cooperation of senior-level White House officials given the public role of such witnesses, the sensitive nature of the subject matters that may be discussed, the potential politicization of these sensitive issues, and the possibility that whatever matter is being investigated ultimately may not warrant any law enforcement action.

In other words, top government officials may only cooperate with a criminal investigation--that is, submit to questioning without being subpoenaed--if they are promised confidentiality. Now what sort of public servant would a person be if he or she refused to help the FBI during an investigation? But Breuer claimed this is a real threat to future investigations: 

A White House official's reluctance to submit voluntarily to an interview or share certain information in an interview could hamper an investigation in several important ways....A law enforcement investigation based upon interviews subject to an expectation of confidentiality also benefits from senior officials more inclined to provide identifiable leads, name percipient witnesses, offer credibility assessments of the accuser or other witnesses, and even articulate inferences, insight or hunches that can be invaluable to a law enforcement investigator. A law enforcement investigation could lose these potential benefits if the senior official believes his or her statement will be subject to public disclosure.

But Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington, the public interest group that filed the lawsuit seeking the Cheney interview, points out that "Cheney was never promised confidentiality, as Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald confirmed in a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), then Chairman of the House Oversight Committee." That is, Cheney participated in the investigation voluntarily without the cloak of confidentiality. If he could do so, why won't future officials? Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, notes, "It is astonishing that a top Department of Justice political appointee is suggesting other high-level appointees are unlikely to cooperate with legitimate law enforcement investigations. What is wrong with this picture?"

The Justice Deparment also filed a declaration noting that because the Cheney interview covered "confidential deliberations" he held with other senior administration officials, its disclosure "could chill future internal discussions about matters of national importance, thus limiting...full, frank, and open discussion." This separate declaration also maintained that the Cheney interview can be withheld because it also covered "confidential communications" he had with Bush. This is the argument that the Bush administration routinely used, such as when it opposed the release of information related to Cheney's energy task force.

By fighting the CREW lawsuit--adopting arguments made by the Bush administration--the Obama administration is demonstrating that even as it encourages greater transparency in government operations, it still is reluctant to yield secrecy that applies to White House actions. For instance, it is still seeking to block the release of White House visitors logs. Cheney, no doubt, is appreciative.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

California Night Sweatin'

Just for the record, since I get asked this a lot: the reason I'm not writing about the California budget mess, even though I live in California, is because I just can't stand to.  Sorry.  If you ever thought there was a group of lawmakers who could make the U.S. Congress look like a sober, highminded deliberative body, the clowns in Sacramento are them.

In case you're interested, here's the latest.  No budget agreement is on the horizon, but on June 29 Dems tried to pass a bill that would have saved a bit of money.  It was a technical measure related to how education money is distributed via Proposition 98, but the bottom line is that it would have saved the state about $3 billion. It had to be passed before June 30 or not at all, but Arnold Schwarzennegger flatly refused to consider it.  Why?  Who knows.  No "piecemeal" budgeting, he says.  He wants an entire budget all at once that slashes $24 billion without increasing taxes so much as a dime, or nothing at all.  Why?  Again, who knows?  It's like trying to figure out a five year old.

So, anyway, our gargantuan budget deficit, much of it caused by almost lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part in the first place, is now about $3 billion higher because of further lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part.  And while Dems may not exactly be heroes in this mess, at least they're doing something.  Proposing things.  Trying to keep the state from resorting to IOUs for blind people.  Hoping to do something to prevent our credit rating from going down the toilet, making our budget problem even worse.  Something.  Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has no plans at all, and the sullen Republican rump in the Senate and Assembly just sits around and votes no on everything.  No proposals, no ideas, no nothing.  Just no, no, no.

Like I said, it makes Washington DC look like the second coming of Periclean Athens.  Depressing.  But if you really want to know more — and you're a stronger man than me — check out the fine folks at Calitics.  They'll keep you up to speed.

Good News on Healthcare

When Republicans passed the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003, they didn't really need to worry much about how to finance it.  Their plan was straightforward: first, have the administration lie repeatedly about the cost of the bill and make sure Congress never knew about it.  Second, don't worry about financing it anyway.  Just blow another hole in the deficit and move on.

Democrats, bless their goo-goo little hearts, are doing their best to actually pay for their healthcare reform project.  That would make things hard enough, but unfortunately, they're making things even more difficult for themselves via some fairly stunning incompetence at getting cost estimates out of the CBO.  In turn, Republicans are twisting the CBO estimates to make them look even worse than they are.  This isn't especially highminded of them, but hey — politics ain't beanbag, and Dems know how the CBO scoring process works as well as anyone.

Anyway, today we have new cost estimates.  Sort of.  To get them, though, you have to paste together several items.  Ezra Klein tries to explain:

The short version is this: CBO estimates that by 2019 the bill will cover 21 million people at a cost of $597 billion. But — and this is important — the HELP Committee's bill doesn't include the Medicaid expansion, because Medicaid is under the sole jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. But if Medicaid is expanded to 150 percent, it will cover an additional 20 million at a cost of about $1 trillion. Add in the savings that Finance is expected to get from reforming Medicare and you're looking at a bill that will cost $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion and cover 42 million people (which would mean 97 percent of the legal population in 2019 would have health insurance) by 2019.

The headlines will still probably get this wrong because it requires putting together several different numbers.  And Republicans will undoubtedly try to twist the numbers to their advantage — which is exactly what you expect an opposition party to do.  Democrats have really made a hash out of these competing estimates, leaving themselves open to all sorts of attacks they wouldn't have to put up with if they'd produced some reasonably clean bills for CBO to score.

But anyway, this is where we're at now.  The difference between this estimate and the previous ones appears to come mostly from the addition of an employer mandate, and covering 97% of the population for a little over $100 billion per year is probably quite doable if this is where things stay.  Add a strong public option and the cost might even come down some more.

Read the whole post for more, and read Jon Cohn for a different take on the same numbers.  It's too bad it's taken so long to get here, but it's basically good news.

Don't Make Excuses for Senate Dems

Yesterday, I tweeted the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen about his post reminding liberals that the Democrats don't really have 60 votes in the Senate. I argued that while Benen and Ezra Klein are making valid arguments—Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy really are sick and the political system really is messed up—neither the mainstream media nor the voters themselves are going to accept those excuses come election time. Last night, Benen responded in an email:

You raise a good point about the governing possibilities of a caucus with 60 members. Reid has 58 Dems and 2 Indys who caucus with Dems, and with that comes a rare and valuable opportunity.

My post, which in retrospect probably should have been clearer, wasn't intended to suggest that Senate Dems have an excuse for failure. Rather, I was responding to the exuberance I saw in a variety of corners, insisting hassle-free governing is the inevitable consequence of the resolution in Minnesota. I'd be delighted if that were true, but it seems to me the limitations -- some logistical, some ideological, and some congenital -- make this highly unlikely.

That said, I don't disagree with your observation at all. In fact, I'd like to think Reid & Co. would take it to heart. Come Midterms, voters aren't going to be especially impressed when Democratic Incumbent X tells voters, "Well, we would have done more, but Kennedy got sick and Nelson's a pain in the ass." They'll tune that right out, looking instead at the record of accomplishments -- or lack thereof.

So, to answer your question directly: yes, there are 60 Democrats in the Senate (technically 58 +2, but whatever). But what that should mean and what it will mean are two different things.

It seems like Benen's come around, which is great. But there are still plenty of other people out there making excuses for Senate Democrats not doing their jobs. And while I understand people's desire to correct irrational exuberance over the Franken result, I think that making these kind of excuses for Harry Reid et. al. is counterproductive. The excuses are valid ones—passing health care reform is going to be hard—but they're still just that: excuses. Democrats are not going to get many better chances than this. They're in a position of greater power than they've been in at least three decades, and probably four. They have a window of opportunity to pass the health care legislation their party has been trying to enact for sixty years. If their party stands for anything, it's this. They need to get it done or get out of the business. And that goes for President Obama, too.

Eco-News Roundup Thursday July 2

Environment, health, and energy-related stories from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday.

Baby Blues: Ex-McCain camp grumps about dealing with Palin's post-partum depression.

Dept. of TCB: Obama is doing what he has to to pass healthcare bill.

Thank You, Jesus: God tells Joe the Plumber NOT to run for Congress. For now.

Bill Breakdown: So, what's the Waxman-Markey bill going to do exactly?

Ugly American: Todd Stern will have to convince India and China to reduce emissions, not easy to do when our own come-lately climate bill barely passed.

 

Housekeeping Note

Quick note.  Two or three times a week our resident MoJo editor and politics junkie Laura McClure drops by with a post called MoJo Mix.  The idea is to highlight a few good items on our other blogs — MoJo, Blue Marble, and The Riff — that the politics junkies here might be interested in reading too.  It's worth checking out.

More Sweetheart Deals

Back in October, when we started bailing out banks with TARP funds, the Treasury received warrants from each bank in return for their investment.  Several of these banks have now paid back the TARP money, but what about the warrants?  While I was on vacation the Treasury announced its plan for selling the warrants back:

The Treasury Department said the banks will make the first offer for the warrants. Treasury will then decide to sell at that price or make a counteroffer. If the government and a bank cannot agree on a fair price for the warrants, the two sides will have the right to use private appraisers.

This is ridiculous.  This isn't like the toxic waste on bank balance sheets that can't be sold because it's impossible to value.  If you want to know how much the warrants are worth, just offer them to the highest bidder.  Simon Johnson has it right: "The only sensible way to dispose of these options is for Treasury to set a floor price, and then hold an auction that permits anyone to buy any part — e.g., people could submit sealed bids and the highest price wins."

If the Obama administration wants us to believe that it's not entirely in thrall to the banking industry, it needs to stop offering absurd sweetheart deals like this to banks that already received sweetheart deals in the original TARP bailout — and are continuing to benefit from trillions of dollars in various Fed support programs and liquidity guarantees.  Just auction the damn warrants.

ICE Nails American Apparel Over Illegal LA

A year and a half after inspecting their sexy downtown factory, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) finally nailed Los Angeles-based manufacturer American Apparel with the most unsurprising violation ever—according to the report, the company currently employees about 1800 workers (a third of the manufacturing staff) whose immigration status is (very) debatable. Cue Dov Charney yawning.

To many of us interested in immigration reform, the company's unprecedented engagement with the subject has been thrilling. By Charney's own estimate, he and his workers have been marching in the May Day immigration reform demonstrations in Los Angeles since 2001. Since then, the company's Legalize LA campaign has spawned a product line from tank tops to booty-shorts, a national print campaign, viral videos, and a timeline of American immigration policy on the shelves at every American Apparel retail store. On neon pink and sunshine yellow t-shirts, on the pages of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and in their coral pink downtown factory, American Apparel has made its (I think admirable) position on immigration central to its ethos as a corporation.

Report: States Wasting Stimulus Funds on New Roads

A report released this week by two public interest groups found that states are on average using nearly a third of their stimulus transportation funds to build new roads while often ignoring a huge backlog of necessary street repairs and public transportation investments.

Produced by a transportation consulting firm for CalPIRG and Smart Growth America, the report paints a particularly ugly picture in California, which has spent more than 80 percent of its $2.6 billion in transportation stimulus money. Forty three percent of that money went to build new road projects, even as about $310 million in ready-to-go road and bridge repairs went unfunded.

Of course, California looks downright sane compared to Kentucky, where more than 38 percent of lane miles are in "poor" condition, a whopping 573 bridges are structurally deficient, and yet 88 percent of the state's $421 million in stimulus transportation money will go to build new roads. "If the state can't afford to maintain what it has now," the report asks, "how does it plan to maintain the new roads?"

Similarly, it's anyone's guess how states will maintain their ailing public transportation systems. A recent Department of Transportation report found that the nation's seven largest rail transportation agencies have a combined investment backlog of $50 billion.  Yet the stimulus earmarks only $8.4 billion to public transportation, leaving other stimulus funds to fill the gap. Even then, few states with those rail systems are dedicating much of this money towards sustaining them. New Jersey, Pennnsylvania, California, New York, and Illinois each allocate less than 5 percent of their discretionary transportation stimulus funds to public transit.

Ironically, prioritizing new roads over public transit projects undermines the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's goals to generate jobs, promote long-term economic growth, and create greener cities--all areas where transit is unbeatable.

It's not too late to change course. June 29th marked the deadline for states to commit at least 50 percent of the Act's $26.6 billion in transportation funds; here's hoping the next 50 percent will be spent more intelligently.

The Cell Phone Cancer Question, Again

The debate over whether electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other wireless technology causes cancer rages on. Yesterday, an advocacy group called the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy sent a letter to journalists and lawmakers urging them to "learn about the health consequences of microwave radiation exposure from cell phones, neighborhood antennas, wireless networks, wireless routers, DECT portable phones, and the potential health consequences of further chronic exposures from wireless broadband and new wireless utility technologies."

The folks behind this latest media blitz are some of the same ones who authored the controversial BioInitiative Report in 2007, which linked wireless radiation to cancer and a host of other health problems.* When I investigated the issue of whether cell phones cause brain cancer last spring, I was told by some BioInitiative authors that we'd finally have the answer in a few months, when the conclusive results from the multinational Interphone Study, the holy grail of cell phone health research, would finally be released.

But a year later, the results still haven't been released. Why not?