Kevin Drum - April 2011

Czars and Signing Statements

| Sat Apr. 16, 2011 12:04 PM EDT

The recently passed budget deal includes a bunch of policy riders, including one that defunds several "czar" positions in the White House. Czars have become a tea party hot button for some reason, so I guess a few of them had to get the axe. President Obama, however, thinks that Congress has no right to tell him who he can and can't consult in the Office of the President. So he signed the bill but added a signing statement telling Congress to piss off. Jake Tapper:

“The President has well-established authority to supervise and oversee the executive branch, and to obtain advice in furtherance of this supervisory authority,” he wrote. “The President also has the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities, and do so not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it. Legislative efforts that significantly impede the President's ability to exercise his supervisory and coordinating authorities or to obtain the views of the appropriate senior advisers violate the separation of powers by undermining the President's ability to exercise his constitutional responsibilities and take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Therefore, the president wrote, “the executive branch will construe section 2262 not to abrogate these Presidential prerogatives.”

In other words: we know what you wanted that provision to do, but we don’t think it’s constitutional, so we will interpret it differently than the way you meant it.

Actually, I'm curious about something here. When Congress and the President disagree about something like this, it's up to the Supreme Court to adjudicate. But how does that usually work? Does the president abide by the law but sue in federal court to have it overturned? Or does he break the law and wait for someone to sue him? What's the usual historical precedent?

UPDATE: The aptly named John Whitehouse reviews some history and concludes that Obama is in the right. However, he also says this just isn't going to be resolved by the courts:

Under no realistic scenario is this going to go to the courts, short of someone actually depriving the czars from receiving a paycheck which they then sue for. This is not a problem for the court system. This is for Congress and the executive to work out alone.

I understand that this is a real possibility, since the Supreme Court generally doesn't take sides in purely political disputes like this. That seems pretty unsatisfactory, though.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 April 2011

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

I like this picture of Inkblot a lot. So much, in fact, that I'm running it bigger than usual and turning over the entire day to him. But all is not lost for Domino lovers: if you look closely, you can see her snoozing in the background.

But that's not all! Today I have a special shoutout for Gert, a faithful reader from Minnesota and Florida who's celebrating her 80th birthday this weekend. Gert's a former librarian and technophile who, according to daughter Marie, "took to computers and the Internet like a duck to water....When we were little she used to bring us library books home to read; now she sends email links to articles collected from an astonishing variety of sources. She can't get enough news about current events; she's been a political activist from back when they were hoping the ERA would pass." Sounds like my kind of reader. Have a great 80th, Gert.

Fun and Games on Capitol Hill

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 1:38 PM EDT

My Twitter feed was full of tweets this morning about a House vote on a budget proposal from the Republican Study Committee, but I didn't really understand what was going on and didn't tune in to C-SPAN to find out. But it turns out this was a pretty entertaining vote. The RSC budget is even more right-wing than Paul Ryan's framework, and this morning an amendment was proposed to adopt the RSC budget. Normally it would lose easily because a handful of Republicans would join the entire Democratic caucus in voting no. But Dems decided to vote "present" instead. Steve Benen picks up the story:

Most Republicans were inclined to support the truly insane RSC proposal, but with so many Dems voting "present," there was a very real chance that the RSC plan would actually pass — and it, not Paul Ryan's plan, would be the approved budget plan for the House.

And it nearly worked. Many Republicans who'd voted for the RSC plan had to scramble to switch their votes and avoid a huge embarrassment. Indeed, the result itself was still pretty embarrassing — there are 176 members of the Republican Study Committee, but only 119 Republicans voted for the RSC's plan.

For Congress watchers, this was quite a bit more drama than we're accustomed to seeing. David Kurtz noted that "chaos erupted" on the House floor, while The Hill said the final minutes of the vote "were characterized by shouting more typical of the British parliament than the U.S. Congress."

Isn't democracy wonderful?

Secrets of the Tax Prep Business

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 12:28 PM EDT

It's tax day, so you should go read Gary Rivlin's great piece in our current issue about the tax prep business and its laser-like focus on the desperate and the easily scammed:

"We recommend that you locate your office where the household income is $30,000 or less," the Instant Tax manual counsels. Each franchisee attends a week of training sessions where "unbelievable emphasis was put on poor minorities," according to former franchisee Habtom Ghebremichael, who recalls a trainer telling his group, "We cater to the 'hood." His archetypal customer, Ogbazion says, is an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant earning $19,000 a year. "They've burned the banks," he says. "They've bounced too many checks. They've mismanaged their finances." Experience has taught him that a few amenities (a ficus tree, free coffee, TV in the reception area) go a long way in making customers feel welcome. "At the check-cashing place, they're talking to someone behind bulletproof glass," Ogbazion continues. "The welfare building—you can imagine what that's like. Here, we treat them well, and they want to come back."

The emphasis of the piece is on Refund Anticipation Loans, the high-cost loans that these places will give you as soon as they've finished your tax return and figured out how big your refund will be. To my surprise, though, that's not really where the money is. RALs are indeed lucrative, usually generating fees of over $100 on a risk-free loan of a couple thousand dollars. But this is just what gets the marks in the door. The real key to the inner city tax prep business is that they charge several hundred dollars to prepare a simple tax return that a legitimate accountant would likely do for no more than a hundred bucks — and that the IRS would do for free. All together, your average working poor schmoe probably pays upwards of $400 or more to get that instant refund.

Lately the low-end tax prep business has gotten a little tougher, as big banks have stopped providing credit lines and the IRS has stopped telling preparers which of their customers are likely to have their refunds garnished — something that actually makes RALs legitimately risky. Click here for the whole story.

Britain's Folly

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 11:30 AM EDT

Tea partiers and their Republican allies in the United States are convinced that the path to prosperity starts with budget cuts right now. That's what the Tory brain trust in Britain thought too when they swept to victory last year. So how's that working out?

Retail sales plunged 3.5 percent in March, the sharpest monthly downturn in Britain in 15 years. And a new report by the Center for Economic and Business Research, an independent research group based here, forecasts that real household income will fall by 2 percent this year. That would make Britain’s income squeeze the worst for two consecutive years since the 1930s.

All of which has challenged the view of Britain’s top economic official, George Osborne, that during a time of high deficits and economic weakness, the best approach is to aggressively attack the deficit first, through rapid-fire cuts aimed at the heart of Britain’s welfare state.

....“My view is that we are in serious danger of a double-dip recession,” said Richard Portes, an economist at the London Business School. “This is going to be a cautionary tale.”

The rest of the article makes clear that there's still a big difference between British conservatives and their American counterparts. Right or wrong, the British variety are actually serious about the deficit: they've slashed spending but they've also raised taxes and kept high marginal rates for top earners. American conservatives, of course, have no such seriousness: they just want to use the deficit as an excuse to cut social programs that they've hated for decades.

Either way, though, it's not likely to work. Britain is probably going to be paying the price for this folly for many years to come.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Where Your Money Goes

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 11:18 AM EDT

According to the White House, here's where your money went if you paid $10,000 in income tax last year. Click here if you want to get a receipt for the actual amount you paid. Fun!

It's Fundraising Day!

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

It's that time of year again: fundraising season, when I ask you for a few dollars to help keep us going. Unlike some magazines, we've never tried to raise money by installing a paywall for our online content because we think it's important to make our reporting as widely accessible as possible. Stories like the attempt by House Republicans to restrict abortions by redefining rape. (After a national outcry, the proposal was dropped.) Or how the Wisconsin governor's union-busting was bankrolled by the secretive billionaire Koch brothers. (That story was picked up by the New York Times.) And our reporting and explainers on Egypt, Libya, and the broader Middle East have been hailed as “indispensable.”

But we still need help from our readers. If you appreciate our blogs, newsletters, and long form magazine pieces, please do your part and help us out. Your donation—any amount—will have a real impact on our work. Even $5 helps. Plus, it's tax deductible. Please take a minute to donate via credit card or PayPal.

On a personal note, I've been at Mother Jones for a couple of years now, and I've been amazed at how far our online presence has come in that time. If you're not checking it out on a regular basis, you're really missing out. But it's expensive to keep this kind of reporting going, and that's why we're asking for your help. Please donate today if you can. Thanks!

Donate by credit card here.

Donate via PayPal here.

NATO's Canary in the Coal Mine

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 12:40 AM EDT

Fred Kaplan isn't feeling too much sympathy for all the European leaders complaining that NATO isn't doing enough to assist the rebels in Libya:

Ultimately, the Europeans are sleeping in the beds they made. They've been talking about an independent defense force for a couple decades....Yet they haven't invested the money needed to support their strategic ambitions, knowing they can always fall back on the Americans in a pinch. I don't think this is why Obama is limiting the U.S. mission in Libya, but one effect is that it sends a message: No, you can't, not anymore, not for everything.

Like Fred, I don't think this is why Obama is limiting U.S. involvement either. But it's a useful side effect. Europe has been tap dancing for a long time over whether or not they're really committed to NATO as an actual war fighting alliance, and Libya might force them to finally make up their minds.

The Power of Shamelessness

| Thu Apr. 14, 2011 9:28 PM EDT

Everyone is mocking Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor for this tweet:

Don't get me wrong: in a purely substantive sense, the mockery is well deserved. But in a political sense, it's not. Cantor's tweet is almost comically shameless, but it's also one of the reasons that Republicans continue to get credit for their economic policies even though their economic policies are routinely disastrous. It's because they're willing to be shameless and they don't really care if anyone calls them on it.

Paul Ryan's plan to shrink the federal government and gut Medicare is called....."The Path to Prosperity." Of course it is. Every Republican plan is called something like that. It's shameless! The Reagan boom? All due to lower marginal tax rates, just like they predicted. The Clinton boom years? A delayed reaction to the Reagan era. Healthy corporate earnings in the aughts? All due to Republican reductions in capital gains taxes. Privatizing Social Security? It's all about encouraging capital formation and growing the economy. Fighting bank regulation? They just want to reduce regulatory uncertainty and allow the economy to boom. Etc. etc. And there are always plenty of think tank analyses to back this stuff up with hard numbers.

It seems laughable, but it's not. If you say that your policies are responsible for economic growth enough times, people will believe it. Nobody really understands this stuff, after all. And the more confidently and shamelessly you say it, the more believers you'll have. So why shouldn't Cantor claim that Republicans are responsible for all the job growth since January? Liberal bloggers will mock, but that's nothing to be afraid of. Not as long as the steady stream of shamelessness keeps convincing people that Republican policies are putting us back on the right economic track. And it does.