Blogs

Why Eric Holder Represents What's Wrong with Washington

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:52 PM EST

Eric Holder Jr., by all accounts, is a decent, smart, caring, competent fellow. President-elect Barack Obama's pick to be attorney general had a brilliant career in public service: he graduated from Columbia University law school, worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was a trial attorney at the Justice Department, a Superior Court judge in Washington, DC, a US attorney, and, then deputy attorney general. He has served on various nonprofit boards: George Washington University, the American Constitution Society, Morehouse School of Medicine, Save the Children Foundation, the District of Columbia's Police Foundation, and the Innocence Project. He's been a member of Concerned Black Men for over 25 years. He also, in a way, represents what's wrong with Washington.

That's not because of Holder's infamous role in the Marc Rich pardon. That episode--which Holder will certainly be asked about during confirmation hearings, which are scheduled to begin Thursday--was a case of Washington pay-to-play. There's little doubt that Rich, a fugitive financier indicted for tax evasion, racketeering, and trading with the enemy (Iran), was able to win that last-minute pardon from President Clinton (with Holder, as deputy attorney general, leaning slightly in its favor) because he had hired a former Clinton White House counsel to argue his case and because Rich's ex-wife had pledged money to Clinton causes.

Holder's role in the Rich pardon may not have been instrumental, but it was a mistake--a terrible way to cap off decades of public service. But he is a poster child for something perhaps more pernicious and extensive in the nation's capital: selling out. Months after the Clinton administration ended, Holder went to work for the influential law firm and lobbying shop of Covington and Burling. (He also joined the boards of Eastman Kodak and MCI.)

Holder was doing what so many routinely do in Washington: cashing in. He took years of experience he had gathered as a public servant and rented it to corporations accused of serious wrongdoing. He smoothly went from doing good to doing well. In 2008, according to his confirmation questionnaire, he made $2.1 million at Covington and Burling. And he expects in 2009 to bring in over $2.5 million, including his separation payment.

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Moving Ahead on Nukes

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:31 PM EST

MOVING AHEAD ON NUKES....Hillary Clinton got all the press yesterday, but Steven Chu was up on Capitol Hill too and he got lots of questions about nuclear power during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy. Blogger KB of NEI Nuclear Notes says, "If you're a proponent of nuclear energy in the United States, I'm not sure that Steven Chu's testimony...could be any more encouraging." Here's one excerpt from the transcript:

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN): The issue of nuclear. I'm gonna skip down and just be very brief since you've had now nine questions regarding that. I noticed a lot of people say that they support nuclear, but they also mention the waste issue. And it's as if once we solve the waste issue then we can pursue nuclear again. It's my understanding, based on what I've heard here today, you mean pursue nuclear now in spite of the, some of the issues that we have regarding waste. Is that correct? All out now? Loan guarantees, let's move ahead. We have 104 plants today. Probably need 300, let's move on?

Steven Chu: Yes, because I'm pretty confident, I'm confident that the Department of Energy, perhaps in collaboration with other countries, can get a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Italics mine. Obama has been fairly ambiguous about nuclear power in the past. "We should explore nuclear power as part of the mix," he said during the primaries, but he's also insisted that his support was contingent on first solving safety, waste storage, terrorist attack, and weapons proliferation concerns. Conversely, Chu seems to be much more nuke friendly. I don't know how much of a bellwether this is, but it's worth noting. More at the link.

Prosecuting for Torture

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 12:48 PM EST

PROSECUTING FOR TORTURE....Susan Crawford, head of military commissions, says charges can't be brought against Mohammed al-Qahtani because she has determined that he was tortured during his interrogation. Matt Yglesias argues that this demonstrates why Barack Obama should be willing to open prosecutions against Bush administration officials for authorizing torture:

We have here a legal determination that a captive in US custody was tortured. And if he was tortured, that means someone tortured him. And torture is a crime....To me, it doesn't make any sense to say that we're going to have determinations that people were illegally tortured and yet we're just not going to do anything about it. It'd be one thing to pardon people for this kind of thing as part of some larger legal or investigative strategy. But to just leave it hanging? If Crawford thinks Qahtani can't be prosecuted because he was tortured, then it stands to reason that there's someone who can be prosecuted for the torturing.

I won't pretend that I don't have mixed views on this, but basically I agree. There's one thing I'd be interested in seeing first, though, that I don't think I've seen before: a sober legal analysis of whether torture prosecutions are likely to succeed. The fact that Qahtani's case has been tainted is based on a certain set of legal principles, and Crawford almost certainly made the right ruling here. But there's a whole different body of statutory law and evidentiary requirements that would come into play if a prosecutor were trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a specific person was guilty of breaking U.S. law by ordering or carrying out the torture of Qahtani. That's a much, much harder case to make.

I guess this is my worst case scenario: we end up bringing charges against Bush administration officials and then they get off. That would be tantamount to an official sanction for this stuff.

Now, obviously no prosecution is ever certain, and fear of failure is a poor reason for doing nothing. But I'd still like to know that there's a decent chance that the legal case here is strong enough that convictions are at least likely. And I'd like to hear it from someone without a huge vested interest one way or the other. Without access to all the evidence this would be something of a whiteboard exercise, but still, has anyone with the appropriate background ever scoped this out?

Obama Keeps Bush's White House Chef

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 12:40 PM EST

comerford.gif
Remember the hubub over whether Obama would plant a White House garden and pick a chef who serves sustainably-grown foods? Well, nevermind. It turns out that Bush's chef, Cris Comerford, sources much of her food from local farmers and some of it from a White House roof garden. And, according to previous Bush chef Walter Scheid, Laura Bush "was adamant that in ALL CASES (his emphasis) if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product." Who knew? Obama, I guess, who's decided to keep Comerford on. Let's just hope he applies her philosophy to the nation's food system, because that, at least, would be a first.

Image: Cris Comerford

Ho Ho Ho

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 12:11 PM EST

HO HO HO....December sales, as expected, were pretty miserable:

Retail sales tumbled by 2.7% last month from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

....The producer price index, due for release Thursday, is expected to show a 2% drop in prices. Consumer prices due out Friday are expected to have declined 0.8%.

Adjusted for inflation, then, sales were down only 1.9% I'd do better if I could, but that's about the most positive spin I can come up with.

Strawman Watch

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 12:00 PM EST

STRAWMAN WATCH....Mickey Kaus thinks economic growth and tight labor markets are the key to low-end wage growth. Unions aren't. I disagree, and a few days ago wondered how Mickey proposed to get to his paradise of endless economic growth anyway. Today he responds:

And Drum has a plan for "low-end wage growth" that doesn't involve restoring the economy? Good luck with that. There's a double Nobel waiting for him, I guess. A triple Nobel if he can boost wages at the bottom while simultaneously letting in millions of unskilled low-wage immigrants. ... P.S.: Drum seems to be explicitly embracing "pie-slicing" — redistributing shares of a non-growing economy — as an alternative to "pie enlargement." Nothing, at first glance, so terribly wrong with that. But can Drum point to a period in modern American history when low-end wages grew without an expanding economy?

Is this supposed to be serious? For the record: yes, of course I support economic growth. Of course it's a precondition for low-end wage growth. I've never even hinted at anything so idiotic as "redistributing shares of a non-growing economy." But we've had economic growth for most of the past three decades and it hasn't been enough to boost median wages more than a smidge. It's pretty obvious by now that we need more than just economic growth to get median (and low-end) wages growing again, and I think greater union density (it's currently less than 10% in the private sector) is probably part of the answer.

As for reducing the influx of low-wage immigrants, I'm fine with that. I always have been — though I have different ideas about how to get there than Mickey. Still, the evidence suggests that this will have only a tiny effect on low-end wages. We're going to need a better plan than just building a fence along the southern border.

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Judge to Bush Administration: Preserve Your Emails

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 11:50 AM EST

In its final week in office, the Bush administration might have some serious work to do: recovering millions of emails. For over a year, the administration has battled a lawsuit by two Washington-based watchdog groups seeking to force the White House to locate unaccounted for internal emails, and on Wednesday morning a federal judge issued a last minute preservation order [PDF].

In full, it reads:

The Executive Office of the President ("EOP") shall: (1) search the workstations, and any .PST files located therein, of any individuals who were employed between March 2003 and October 2005, and to collect and preserve all e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005 and (2) issue a preservation notice to its employees directing them to surrender any media in their possession–irrespective of the intent with which it was created–that may contain e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005, and for EOP to collect and preserve all such media.

This is a major assignment for the Bush administration, which has to date been tight-lipped about what it has or has not been doing to preserve its emails for post-administration archiving. "The EOP [Executive Office of the President] is going to have to go to each of the workstations and find PST files and save them," says Meredith Fuchs, one of the lawyers representing the National Security Archive in the case. "It also means all of the EOP employees who may have used CDs, DVDs, external hard drives, zip drives, memory sticks, etcetera, to save emails are going to now have to turn them over before they leave."

To Win Back Congress, Conservatives Need Economic Ideas that Aren't Insane

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 11:31 AM EST

You may have noticed that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is answering Barack Obama's call for suggestions on how to create a better stimulus by proposing a two-year suspension of payroll taxes. McConnell's conservative colleagues in the Senate support the idea, despite the fact that it (1) eliminates funding for Social Security and identifies no replacement, and (2) denies the government a huge portion of its income during a period of massive deficits.

This is a catastrophically bad idea, an idea so bad and so naive and so completely impossible to implement that it almost makes you laugh. But keep in mind, this idea isn't being proposed by some backbencher in the House Republican caucus. This is the Senate Minority Leader. This is the best Republicans can think up!

It's this vacuum of solid policy thinking, which gets filled with ideologically driven nonsense, that caused conservative blogger Daniel Ruwe to rip into his brethern. Here's what he had to say on a slightly different tax idea the Right thought up:

Fixing the Bureaucracy: Will DOJ Be Obama's Most Difficult Task?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 10:53 AM EST

The Obama Administration has to rebuild a lot of broken federal agencies: the FDA, the EPA, FEMA, and on and on. But there may be no federal body that has fallen further than the Department of Justice, which has gone from being a trustworthy independent actor to being an appendage of the White House run by nincompoops and right-wing zealots.

If you ask anyone who has worked in the Justice Department (and we have), they'll tell you that agency's most famous controversy — the fired US Attorneys scandal — was simply one stage in a long-running effort to politicize the place from top to bottom. Conservatives in, liberals out. And now an internal DOJ report has found new evidence that purge-like conditions were created inside the building by Bush political appointees. This would be hilarious if it wasn't so sad:

Barack Obama 2.0

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:43 AM EST

BARACK OBAMA 2.0....Barack Obama is apparently planning to create a permanent political organization designed not just to help him win reelection in 2012, but to help him get his policy agenda passed in the meantime:

The organization, known internally as "Barack Obama 2.0," is being designed to sustain a grass-roots network of millions that was mobilized last year to elect Obama and now is widely considered the country's most potent political machine.Organizers and even Republicans say the scope of this permanent campaign structure is unprecedented for a president.

....Though the plan still is emerging, one source with knowledge of the internal discussion said the organization could have an annual budget of $75 million in privately raised funds. Another said it would deploy hundreds of paid staff members — possibly one for every congressional district in certain politically important states and even more in larger battlegrounds such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.

....The Obama system will be used at least in part to influence members of the president's own party. For example, Democratic lawmakers in Republican-leaning districts might resist voting for an Obama-backed global warming bill. In that case, the White House or DNC could use the new network for phone campaigns, demonstrations or lobbying trips to push lawmakers to stick with Obama.

This is something that Mark Kleiman more or less predicted many months ago. (To me, anyway. I'm not sure if he blogged about it.) His conjecture was that Obama's organization had fundamentally redefined presidential politics thanks to its huge pool of dedicated volunteers and its ability to quickly raise unheard-of sums of money. After all, what congressman is likely to buck the boss if the boss can offer — or withhold — hundreds of thousands of dollars without batting an eye and mobilize — or withhold — hundreds of thousands of phone calls and telegrams depending on how closely you toe the presidential line? Every president has a certain amount of power he can bring to bear against holdout legislators, but Obama's organization brings this to a whole new level.

If this turns out to be right, Congress is going to learn pretty quickly that the ballgame has changed. Should be fun to watch.