It's not just an Illinois thing. Politico has a scoop revealing that the American Conservative Union, a prominent rightwing player in Washington, tried to sell its influence for big bucks:

The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s endorsement in a bitter legislative dispute, then flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.

For the $2 million plus, ACU offered a range of services that included: “Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and/or other members of the ACU’s board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)”

The conservative group’s remarkable demand — black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” — was contained in a private letter to FedEx , which was provided to POLITICO.

The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.

This is a big deal. The ACU mounts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a signficant gathering of thousands of conservative activists in Washington, where GOP presidential wannabes often work the crowd. And Keene is a go-to pundit of the right—and a much-used source for political journalists seeking guidance on what's going on within conservative circles. He has always sold himself as a conservative first, a Republican second. But now it seems that he is just selling himself, period.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey is not happy about this. In an item titled "ACU puts conservatism up for sale," he huffs,

When we said that conservatives needed to do a better job selling the philosophy of limited government and fiscal responsibility, this isn’t exactly what we meant

He continues:

The range of services offered [by ACU] calls into question the integrity of the entire organization. Does the ACU normally offer its public commentary for rent?  Who else has paid for endorsements in David Keene’s columns, or those of the ACU board members? It would be also fair to ask Keene or the board knew of [this] proposal before it went out, although it would be difficult to imagine that Whitfield could have offered so much in services for that much compensation without having approval from Keene and/or the board in the first place.  The ACU’s about-face on the issue right after FedEx’s refusal would be difficult to explain as well.

Though the ACU has put out a response to the Politico story (kudos to Mike Allen for breaking it), Morrissey still is not satisfied. Leave it to the ACU to make the Washington Post look good.

And another thing: Politico notes that with this exposé it has uncovered evidence of the longtime Washington practice of pay to play. But it should be noted that the pay-to-players of this sort usually are on the right side of the fence. Remember Armstrong Williams? The ideological advocates of the right in Washington tend to be tied more to lobbying and influence-peddling than those of the left. Jack Abramoff, for instance, used several conservative policy groups to launder his ill-gotten treasure.

Is anyone at the Campaign for America's Future, which runs the liberal counterpart to CPAC, selling his or her access and influence for millions of bucks to corporations? Don't make me laugh. True, there are plenty of former Democratic officials and staffers who have left public service for private profit as lobbyists, and some simultaneously associate with policy shops. But there has long been a tighter nexus on the right between for-profit influence-wielders and for-ideology policy advocates. ACU is proof of that.

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

Card Check RIP?

The New York Times reports that Democrats seem to be giving up on card check, the part of the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow unions to be certified if a majority of workers sign a card attesting to their desire to join. The Times explains "moderate" Democrats'  opposition to the provision:

Several moderate Democrats, including Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have voiced opposition to card check, convinced that elections were a fairer way for workers to unionize. They were swayed partly by business’s vigorous campaign, arguing that card check would remove confidentiality from unionization drives and enable union organizers to bully workers into signing union cards.

The Times could have better informed its readers by exploring how much money "moderate" Democrats like Blanche Lincoln received from anti-union forces, and how much money pro-card check Democrats received from unions. For example, Sen. Tom Harkin, who introduced EFCA in the Senate, has received $1.7 million from the labor sector—more than any other senator—since 1989. Sen. Lincoln, for her part, has received $5.5 million from business PACs over the course of her career. If the Times didn't want to get into the purchase prices of individual senators, something like this paragraph, via OpenSecrets, would have done just fine:

Members of Congress who voted in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007, when the bill wasn't passed, had collected 10 times more on average from union PACs during their careers ($862,065) than those who didn't ($86,538), and those who opposed the bill had collected more on average from business PACs ($2.5 million), than those who supported the legislation ($1.7 million).

Among climate change "skeptics," one of the favorite line of attacks is to admit that global temperatures are rising ("we're not deniers!") but then claim that spending money to reduce global warming is a waste.  There are plenty of more urgent problems, and we should simply deal with the effects of warming when they happen.  Well, they're happening:

Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir....Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.

....Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical.

....In 2007, the London-based NGO International Alert compiled a list of countries with a high risk of armed conflict due to climate change. They cited no fewer than 46 countries, or one in every four, including some of the world's most gravely unstable countries, such as Somalia, Nigeria, Iran, Colombia, Bolivia, Israel, Indonesia, Bosnia, Algeria, and Peru. Already, climate change might be behind the deep drought that contributed to the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Of course, it's already too late to do much of anything about Kashmir's glaciers, so I suppose that will become yet another reason for inaction.  And the aid to help Pakistan "deal" with global warming?  Somehow I have a feeling that's not going to happen either.

Via Hilzoy, who's hanging up her blogging spurs today back at my old home.  It's sad news for the blogosphere, and I wish her the best of luck.  I'll miss her.

The notion that Afghanistan could become Obama's Vietnam has been picking up supporters lately—see this Newsweek cover, plus more airings here and here and here. In this month's Washington Monthly, terrorism analyst and MoJo contributor Peter Bergen argues forcefully that there's nothing to see here, folks: "Afghanistan will not be Obama’s Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state."

Bergen is no wide-eyed optimist: In the July/August 2007 issue of Mother Jones, he took stock of the many avoidable mistakes made by the Bush administration in Afghanistan that led to the "Iraqization" of the conflict there. So it's notable that the Obama administration's increased investment in Afghanistan has him feeling more upbeat about the country's prospects. Check out the whole thing here.

"Michael Osinski, a former computer programmer, is an oyster farmer."

(From Mr. Osinki's op-ed in Friday's New York Times.)

Here's today's mix of science, environment, and health stories (ok, mostly health today) from our other blogs. And if you haven't read Josh Harkinson's piece about pot farms in our national parks, well, it's a trip. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Doctors without orders: The CIA is hiring doctors. Shudder.

Dream a little dream: Brad Delong's flights of health-care-reform fancy.

Climate change policy for the rest of us: How do you convince an ordinary schmoe that higher energy prices are worth paying?

Rationing rationale: Guess what? Health care is already rationed. Now, says Peter Singer, let's make it fair.

AMA, oh my: The American Medical Association endorses a pretty good health care reform plan. What a nice surprise.

Goldman's Billions

Matt Taibbi on the $3.44 billion quarterly profit announced by Goldman Sachs yesterday:

One of the most hilarious lies that has been spread about Goldman of late is that, since it repaid its TARP money, it’s now free and clear of any obligation to the government — as if that was the only handout Goldman got in the last year. Goldman last year made your average AFDC mom on food stamps look like an entrepreneur. Here’s a brief list of all the state aid that is hiding behind that $3.44 billion number they announced the other day.

Click the link to read the rest.  And here's the New York Times on Goldman and JP Morgan: "Both banks now stand astride post-bailout Wall Street, having benefited from billions of dollars in taxpayer support and cheap government financing to climb over banks that continue to struggle."

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, liberal Dan Miller jumps into a conversation about healthcare:

There’s a vast policy apparatus on the progressive side of the aisle built around health care, with industrious wonks digging into every nook and cranny.  Meanwhile, the right has...nothing....The right has basically abdicated its role in the conversation.  It has not and as far as I can tell will not treat health care reform as any kind of priority—every major player on the right is sitting on the sidelines.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get two GOP Senate votes.  And this after not one but two elections in which the right was beaten by historic margins.

Why is this?  Sometimes it's worth backing up a bit and looking at the fundamentals.  And we have two fundamentally incompatible desires here: the American public supports universal healthcare.  Conservatives support a free market approach to healthcare.  Unfortunately, the free market doesn't do universal.  That's why, for things like roads, national defense, the postal service, and old-age pensions — all of which we've decided ought to be available to everyone — we let the government do the job.

So if you want universal coverage, the government has to be involved.  Still, this doesn't necessarily mean the government literally has to provide healthcare to everyone.  If you want a more limited government solution you could instead fund healthcare only to the 47 million uninsured.  Since everyone else is already covered, that would effectively make healthcare universal.  Unfortunately, there's a problem with this too.

Let's take an analogous case: food stamps.  The government doesn't try to provide food to everyone, only to those poor enough that they can't get it on their own.  But what's to stop everyone from lazily quitting their jobs and living off food stamps?  Answer: you'd have to accept being poor.  There are some people willing to do that, but most of us aren't.  So it's a manageable problem.

But healthcare is different because most of us don't buy it directly out of our own pockets.  We get healthcare insurance from our employers.  So suppose the government stepped in to help out just the uninsured.  What would happen?

Well, for starters, the program could be limited just to the poor.  But that wouldn't make it universal since there are plenty of non-poor who don't have health insurance and can't get it through the private market.

No, we'd have to simply offer it to anyone who was uninsured, subsidizing the poor and charging full price to everyone else. But what would happen then?  Answer: employers would start dropping health coverage for their employees.  Why wouldn't they, after all?  Unlike the food example, where there are personal incentives against being lazy and living off the government dole, employers have no reason to hold back.  As long as a decent alternative is available, their incentive is to get out of the healthcare business, hand over the money they save to their employees, and tell them to sign up for the government program.  Before long, the government would be funding a huge portion of the private insurance market.

That will never fly, of course, so we'd need rules in place to prevent companies from dropping their healthcare plans.  But that would put existing companies at a disadvantage if new companies didn't also have to provide healthcare.  So we'd need rules that didn't just prohibit companies from dropping healthcare, but affirmatively required them to provide healthcare.  But which companies?  Lots of big companies don't offer healthcare right now, so this would be a brand new mandate.

And what about insurance companies?  Well, if we're relying on them to insure the people who aren't covered by their employers, they need to take all comers.  Coverage is supposed to be universal, after all.  This means that even people with expensive pre-existing conditions need to be included, and they need to be included at a reasonable price.  That's yet more regulation.

I could keep going, but you get the idea: by the time you're done you have a web of regulation so tight that you basically have the same same plan liberals offered up in the first place.  The only way to make healthcare universal is either to have the government fund it or to turn private insurers into little more than regulated utilities.  Either way, it's not a free market solution.

This, then, is the fundamental conservative problem: you can either have universal coverage or you can have a quasi-free market.  There's no way to have both, but no one is willing to say publicly that it's OK to leave millions of people without healthcare.  So instead conservatives hem and haw and nibble around the edges with things like HSAs and tax exclusions, even though these ideas don't do anything to make healthcare coverage more widely and securely available.  No free market solution can do that.

But that's what the public wants.  And so conservatives are stuck.

I would never have believed it, but... just hours after the National Research Council requested that hundreds of classified images of the Arctic be released for scientific study of climate changeas I reported yesterdayVoila!—the Interior Department did just that.

Seven hundred images of sea ice from half a dozen sites around the Arctic, plus 500 images from 22 sites in the US can now be viewed online.

Oh, and they're seriously gorgeous. If you have enough bandwidth to open them.

Reuters reports the Arctic images have a resolution of 1 meter, a vast improvement on available pictures with resolutions of 15 to 30 meters.

The higher definition pictures reveal small features with big impacts on warming—like dark melt pools on top of the ice that absorb light and heat. These images will vastly improve the accuracy of forecast modelling.

Scientists were expecting the request for the Arctic images to be declassified to take months—at least.

But apparently someone in Washington digs science and actually understands something about climate security and the perils of thin ice.
 

Credit Card Follies

Ah, credit card interchange fees.  One of my favorite subjects.  Here's how they work: every time you buy something with plastic the merchant pays a 2-3% fee to the credit card company.  You never see this fee, though, because merchants are contractually forbidden from charging you an extra 2-3% for credit card purchases.  Instead, they just add it to the price of their products and pass it along to everyone, including customers who pay by cash or check.  The whole process is invisible.

Merchants are unhappy about this arrangement.  But generally speaking, what they're unhappy about isn't the invisibility.  They're unhappy about the size of the interchange fee, which they'd like to be lower.

Now, it's obvious why merchants and banks fight over the size of the fee.  A big fee is good for banks and a small fee is good for merchants.  But they both seem to be fine with the invisibility of the fee.  Why?

Again, it's pretty obvious: If fees were tacked onto credit card purchases, people would use their credit cards less.  That's bad for banks.  But if they used their credit cards less, it probably also means they'd spend less, period.  That's bad for merchants.  It's better for both parties to keep the fees invisible and keep everyone spending lots of money.

This has recently become the subject of a major lobbying effort, but instead of trying to make interchange fees transparent, merchants are mostly just trying to convince Congress to regulate them downward.  Andrew Martin reports:

But retailers may have a tough time convincing Congress that consumers would benefit if the effective interchange rate, which has increased slightly in recent years, is dialed back. Many other countries, including Israel and Australia, have required banks that issue cards to reduce the fee. Yet there is little evidence that the savings were passed along.

In Australia, where regulators required banks to cut the interchange rate for Visa and MasterCard purchases to 0.5 percent from 0.95 percent, the banks offset their loss by reducing rewards programs and raising annual fees, according to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office.

So what's wrong with that?  In fact, I'd go further: let's kill two birds with one stone and just abolish interchange fees altogether.  Card companies would then be forced to charge higher annual fees to credit card users — fees that (a) would fall solely on the people actually using credit cards and (b) would make it obvious just how much credit cards actually cost.  That strikes me as an excellent idea.  Credit cards aren't a free lunch, and there's no reason that consumers should be fooled into thinking they are.

And if that means consumers end up using credit cards less — well, what's wrong with that?  It's the free market in action.