Blogs

Insurance Industry Now Thinks Texas Needs More Litigation

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 10:59 AM EST

In 2003, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed state legislators to cap pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits at extremely low levels. The insurance industry lobbied heavily for the measure, helping to promote a false vision of Texas as a "judicial hellhole," where doctors were fleeing the state over an "epidemic" of frivolous lawsuits. Since then, malpractice lawsuits have plummeted.

Now, though, the insurance industry is wondering if its campaign worked too well—not because malpractice victims can't get justice (which they can't) but because tort reform is cutting into insurance company profits. Defense lawyer Gary Schumann told a group of insurance execs recently that tort reform had worked so well in Texas that judges were trying cases that might otherwise go to mediation just to stay busy. Not only that, but Texas nursing homes (among the worst in the nation) have become so unconcerned about getting sued that many have stopped buying private liability insurance.

Schumann said he was worried about the industry's future. "We want a little bit of litigation out there, don't we? We want a little bit of risk. We need risk or we're all out of business. … We'll see what happens but tort reform has worked. I just hope for all of our sakes it hasn't worked too well."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Dems' Uninspiring Record on Earmarks

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 10:31 AM EST

To continue our trend of Democrats playing the Washington game instead of standing for what's right:

Even as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has joined in steps to clean up pork-barrel spending, the Maryland congressman has tucked $96 million worth of pet projects into next year's federal budget, including $450,000 for a campaign donor's foundation.
Hoyer (D) is one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House for 2008, based on budget requests in bills so far, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog group.

The Post article from which this comes does not identify the other nine lawmakers in the top 10, and the Taxpayers for Common Sense website doesn't have the list either. So it could be all Republicans, who knows? But I'm guessing it isn't.

Hoyer is a good example of how there isn't a consensus on earmarks among Democrats. When they took power in 2006, they weren't all gripped by a zeal to cleanse Washington of money's corrupting power.

Hoyer defends his earmarks, saying they fund such worthy causes as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and supporting local military bases. For 2008, he has requested millions of dollars to equip police in his district, help schools and improve roads and the Southern Maryland bus network... "We made very substantial progress in making sure that earmarks, which I support, are transparent," Hoyer said in an interview.

That's what Hoyer supports—incremental change. Don't eliminate earmarks, just shine a little light on them. Oh, and reduce their numbers somewhat.

Republicans had come under fire as earmarks tripled during their 12 years of congressional control, to nearly 13,000 in 2006. Some projects, such as a $223 million bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island -- dubbed a "bridge to nowhere" -- stirred public ridicule.
Since assuming control of Congress, Democrats have taken some important steps to clean up the practice, watchdog groups say. Lawmakers are now required to disclose their earmarks. And House and Senate leaders have agreed to cut earmark spending by 40 percent in the 2008 budget bills.

Better than the last guy, but still not good enough.

What Oprah and Hillary Have in Common - and What They Do Not

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 9:48 AM EST

When he was campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton had a stock line in his stump speech:

My wife, Hillary, gave me a book that says, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Speaking at a rally for Barack Obama on Saturday, Oprah Winfrey declared,

If we continued to do the same things over and over and over again, I know that you get the same results.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was selling himself as the candidate of change. This time around, Obama is trying to corner that market, with Hillary Clinton promising the best of both worlds: change and experience. In an auditorium filled with signs proclaiming, "Chage You Can Believe In" (get the dig at Hillary?), Winfrey pronounced Obama the genuine agent of change and not-too-indirectly slammed Hillary Clinton:

I challenge you to see through those people who try and convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.

In other words, don't buy Clinton's most powerful argument. While pitching Obama, Winfrey is unselling Clinton. And the Clinton people certainly are not going to do what politicos usually do in such a circumstance: attack the messenger. After all, who wants to get into a tussle with Oprah? The question, of course, is, will Winfrey, who is campaigning with Obama in several early states, really help Obama? No one will know until January 3. But certainly none of this is likely to hurt the candidate of more change.

Congress, Including Leading Dems, Briefed on Torture as Early as 2002

| Sun Dec. 9, 2007 11:57 AM EST

This kind of makes me nauseous.

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
[snip]

Green Energy the Next Frontier

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 10:40 PM EST

ourvis_solar_small.jpg

Great piece by Declan Butler in Nature on the new venture capitalism in Silicon Valley. Green energy, folks. California gold. Butler reports how the venture-capital industry in the US spent $2.6 billion on clean-energy technologies in the first three-quarters of this year. Up from $1.8 billion in 2006, and $533 million in 2005. Google joined the game last week, committing millions more to solar, wind and geothermal, seeking a technology patch to make renewables cheaper than coal. A few weeks earlier, Al Gore's London-based Generation Investment Management partnered with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park—the green-energy investors that nurtured Amazon, Google and Genentech—to fund global climate solutions.

For the fast-moving entrepreneurs of the [Silicon] [V]alley… the next frontier is the roughly US$6-trillion energy market, where the dinosaurs of power-generation utilities have traditionally invested a pittance in research and development. "Venture capital is exactly what we need to try new things outside the bounds of what the traditional energy companies think is worth doing," says Vinod Khosla, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Microsystems and now heads Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, one of the most prominent clean-energy venture-capital firms. "There is almost no technology risk-taking in any of the energy companies." Khosla predicts that within five years there will be a green form of electricity that is cheaper than coal, and cleaner fuels that are cheaper than oil.

Butler also notes that although the US lags far behind Europe's leaders, Denmark and Germany, in renewables, its venture-capital investments in clean tech now more than double those in Europe.

California scooped $726.2 million of this year's US clean-tech venture funding, followed by Massachusetts ($292.6 million) and Texas ($149.4 million). Almost $1 billion of US investment went abroad, including a $200-million investment in Brazil's Brazilian Renewable Energy, which produces ethanol, and a $118-million investment in China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, which makes photovoltaic solar systems.

This is the reason I refuse to surrender all hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Bye-Bye Cookie

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 6:49 PM EST

Krongard_h_1402.jpg

Reuters reports that Howard "Cookie" Krongard has decided to resign as the State Department's inspector general. The decision comes after a disastrous appearance last month before Rep. Henry Waxman's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where Krongard's testimony invited charges of perjury. Krongard, who had allegedly interfered in an arms smuggling investigation targeting Blackwater USA, initially denied that his brother Buzzy Krongard (a former high-ranking CIA official) was a member of that company's advisory board. He later changed his tune after reaching Buzzy by phone during a break in the hearing.

It's unclear why Cookie would have lied. But if by doing so he was trying to protect his brother, the favor went unreturned when reporters reached Buzzy for comment: He explained that he'd told Cookie about his Blackwater affiliation weeks before the hearing. Seeing as Cookie's congressional testimony had been under oath, the revelation may have opened him up to prosecution. So much for brotherly love.

I spoke with several congressional staffers last week, who suggested that both Cookie and Buzzy would be called to appear before Waxman's committee to account for Cookie's bizarre testimony. But now that Cookie has thrown in the towel, it's unclear if the hearing will take place. According to a statement released this afternoon by Waxman's office, "Mr. Krongard's decision removes an enormous distraction from the Inspector General's office and will allow the office to focus on its important oversight responsibilities. The Committee will certainly take this new development into account."

Whatever happens, the lack of affection between the brothers Krongard appears to be indicative of larger family dramas. The Washington Post reported in September that Cookie's son and daughter-in-law, Kenneth and Kristin Krongard, had filed a restraining order to get him to stop sending "unprofessional and highly offensive" emails, in which he threatened that they'd be "put out on the street" if they lost a lawsuit he had brought against them. Cookie filed suit last year, alleging that the couple had defaulted on a $320,000 home loan. Although they paid back the loan in full after the suit's filing, Cookie is pressing his case, demanding interest and other penalties, as well as reimbursement of at least $114,000 in legal fees. Does Krongard feel guilty about suing his son's family? Who can say for sure, but the tone of this August missive points to no. "If you are willing to put your wife and children's future in jeopardy, that's your business," he wrote. What a guy.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama's Health Care Problem: Why It Has Become the Biggest Mistake of His Campaign

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 6:45 PM EST

obama_back.jpg When Barack Obama released his health care plan, the health care heavies around the web noticed it lacked the mandate that John Edwards' plan had. That was a demerit. The whole point of universal health care is that because the healthy have to buy health care, there is a enough money around to pay for the exorbitant health care costs of the sick. Obama claims that his plan makes health care affordable so the poor can buy in, but the problem isn't just the poor. It's the young and strapping, who have no incentive to buy health care at any price.

But the aforementioned heavies didn't attack Obama on the issue. They even praised him. His plan was a serious one that represented a substantial improvement over the status quo. When Hillary Clinton came out with her plan, which mimicked to a great extent Edwards', everyone considered the three health care plans essentially the same. Obama, and even the other candidates, conceded the differences were minor.

But then the Clinton camp found a Jonathan Cohn article in which he crunched the numbers and found that Obama's plan would leave 15 million people uninsured. Cohn later said that the number was a "very, very rough estimate" but that it was "more right than wrong." Regardless of its accuracy, it was now campaign fodder.

Impressive Speech From Sheldon Whitehouse

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 5:27 PM EST

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivered an important speech today full of shocking information, if it's still possible to be shocked by the Bush administration. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Whitehouse has access to the Justice Department's secret legal determinations. He then was able to get some of the determinations declassified, or at least the summaries he wrote down while reading them in a secure room. This is how he characterizes three of them:

1. An executive order cannot limit a President. There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it.

2. The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President's authority under Article II.

3. The Department of Justice is bound by the President's legal determinations.

In other words, the president is the law. Whitehouse concludes:

When the Congress of the United States is willing to roll over for an unprincipled President, this is where you end up. We should not even be having this discussion. But here we are. I implore my colleagues: reject these feverish legal theories.

There is, of course, little reason for Whitehouse to be optimistic this will happen. Still, it's a surprise to see even one senator demonstrating he cares about these issues, and explaining them in a way normal people can understand.

For more, see Marcy Wheeler's typically cogent commentary.

Fiscal Conservatives Hit Huckabee on His Tax Record

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 3:20 PM EST

The problem with the Republican Party is that it is composed of various groups—small government fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, national security hawks—whose interests don't always align.

Usually the GOP can find a candidate, like George W. Bush, who satisfies all three groups. This time around, though, they're not so lucky. The candidates who "check all the boxes" are either faking it (Romney) or are only kinda interested in running (Thompson), and those who don't are getting beaten up by the portions of the party they leave dissatisfied.

Take this ad, for example. The fiscally conservative, tax-hating Club for Growth is hammering Huckabee for his moderate economic record.

The bad thing about Huckabee's tax hikes mentioned here is that they weren't progressive (except possibly the income tax "surcharge"); they hit the middle and working classes as hard or harder than they hit the upper class. That means that if Huckabee survives these attacks at gets the GOP nod, he'll probably be attacked for this stuff by the Democrats, too.

The Next Financial Crisis: Credit Cards

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 2:42 PM EST

The next step in the growing financial squeeze—what the banking community likes to call the "soft landing"—is coming down in credit cards. Take a look at those offers you're getting in the mail. Gone are the promises of permanent low APRs on purchases or balance transfers. Instead, the companies are offering a low rate for 6 or maybe 12 months, and then it shoots up to 15 or 20 percent or higher. And there's usually a 5 percent transfer fee on your whole balance—the ceilings on transfer fees are disappearing. So even if you get, say, a 4.9 percent APR for 12 months, it's really 9.9 percent.