Kevin Drum - March 2013

Ask Me Anything (About Catblogging)

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 9:46 AM PDT

If you're interested in asking me about catblogging, here's the link to my Reddit Ask Me Anything session today:

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1aaj3f/im_kevin_drum_and_ten_years_ago_today_i_invented/

It starts at 10 am Pacific time and runs for a couple of hours. I've never done one of these before, so I'm not really sure what kinds of questions people might have. Come on over and surprise me!

UPDATE: That was fun. It's over now, but you can still click the link if you want to read all the questions and answers.

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White House Loses Gamble on Canceled White House Tours

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 9:13 AM PDT

Nobody really cares about canceled research projects, furloughed workers, or reduced food safety inspections. As Steve Benen points out, the current Beltway obsession over sequester-related budget cuts is with canceled White House tours:

By my count, there were eight questions about the tours at yesterday's White House press briefing. George Stephanopoulos wanted to talk about this during a rare interview with President Obama, asking two questions on this. Congressional Republicans wanted to talk about this when the president met with them privately, and they're weighing a new resolution on the issue.

And don't forget the Washington Post editorial board, which dedicated a big chunk of space to this today. They justify this by explaining that the cancellations were pretty obviously designed to be high profile in the first place: "The ham-handed tactic is employed when government is faced with budget cuts and officials go after the services that are most visible and appreciated by the public. It’s a kind of bureaucratic hostage-taking, so the pushback that the Obama administration has encountered is a proper comeuppance."

Well, maybe. It's certainly true that White House tours are booked through your local member of Congress, which means that when they're canceled, that's who you're going to complain to. Supposedly this puts pressure on Congress to do something about the sequester. In reality, though, it's mostly given Congress a chance to scream about how the president is politicizing the budget cuts. And since the press loves nothing more than a catfight that requires no tedious explanations of policy issues, this kind of shiny bauble is irresistible.

At the same time, the world is what it is. The White House isn't staffed with political naifs. They knew what they were doing, they knew how Congress would react, and they knew how the media would treat it. They took a gamble that canceling the tours would apply some useful pressure, and they pretty much lost that gamble. Everyone saw right through it, and they were not amused.

That's life. Nobody comes out of this episode looking especially good. Onward.

Is Twitter a Replacement for RSS?

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 8:29 AM PDT

By now I assume everyone knows that Google Reader is scheduled for the chopping block in July. This is bad news for people like me who use Reader a lot. And by "a lot," I mean it's pretty much the primary tool I use during my working day. It comes in second to the app that allows me to write and publish blog posts, but only barely.

So fine, I'll have to find a new RSS reader. And I understand that apparently using RSS to keep up with the web never really caught on. It joins dozens of other things that I love but that most of the world doesn't.

Still, I have one question. Maybe someone in comments can provide an answer that actually makes sense. I hear over and over (and over and over) that Twitter has replaced RSS. And sure, in a way it has: I follow lots of people and they mostly post links to all their blog posts on Twitter.

But....don't you miss a ton of stuff that way? I don't follow Twitter every second of every day, which means lots of stuff just scrolls out of view and I never see it. The reason I use RSS is that I want to be able to scroll quickly through every post from a particular set of bloggers, and I want to be able to do it when I want to do it, not only in real-time when it happens to pop up in my Twitter feed.

So here's my question: Am I missing something? Is Twitter really a replacement for RSS? It sure doesn't seem like it to me.

Obamacare's 21-Page Application (Sort Of)

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 8:01 AM PDT

For a minute, Sarah Kliff had me scared. Obamacare requires a 21-page application!? Well, yes it does, but in fairness, there's a single 2-page section you have to fill out, and then there are five more 2-page sections for other members of your family. So sure, it might be long if you have a big family, but a lot of it is repetition. And if you're just a single earner? Then aside from instructions, there's really only about four pages (five if you're an American Indian or Alaska Native): one page of basic contact information, two pages of income information, and one page of current insurance information. And even the repetitive pages you mostly leave blank if they apply to your children, who have no income or job information.

So....not so bad, really. But it sure might look intimidating. And, as Sarah says, help will probably be available for most people:

There are likely a lot of support services that will start springing up over the next few months. This could include traditional agents and brokers, whose whole line of business is understanding applications like this one. The Affordable Care Act also envisions a group of navigators, financed by state exchanges, who will—as the name implies—help navigate the insurance system.

Today Is the 10th Anniversary of Friday Cat Blogging

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

This is it: Today is the 10th anniversary of Friday Cat Blogging. March 7, 2003, was the inspiration. On March 11 I announced I'd do it. And on March 14 I posted the first ever Friday Cat Blogging. Huzzah!

To celebrate, I'm doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything session at 10 a.m. Pacific time today. I'll have a link available at 9:30, or you can just go to the main Reddit IAMA page and search for Kevin Drum. If you have any questions about the cats, this is the time to ask them.

While we wait for the Reddit session to start, how about a stroll down memory lane? To start, here are the very first Friday Cat Blogging pictures. Jasmine is on the left and Inkblot is on the right:

The picture on the left, from April 4, 2003, is one of my favorites of Jasmine. The picture on the right, from April 16, 2010, is one of my favorites of Inkblot. The image that I photoshopped onto the TV screen is still the one I use as the desktop image on my computer.

Jasmine died on January 4, 2007. A few days later we headed down to our favorite local shelter, and after we failed to bond with half a dozen cats the volunteers brought out one final possibility. She took one look at me, jumped into my lap, and purred herself to sleep. Sold! We took her home and named her Domino because she was black with a little white spot on her forehead. Here are the first pictures I took of her, on January 14, 2007. The one on the right is especially appropriate on a transcendental day like today:

Hey, how about some movies? The one on the left, from November 12, 2009, shows Domino and her favorite pair of shoes. The one on the right, from February 11, 2010, shows Inkblot in one of his favorite spots. Both feature bonus meowing at the end.

This is one of my favorite series of pictures of Domino, from June 1, 2007. She's playing under the sheets as we make the bed, having an absolute ball:

I just happen to like these two pictures. They're from September 10, 2010:

As we all know, Inkblot decided to run for president in 2011. Here's his campaign poster from July 24, 2011:

Sadly, Inkblot died on July 24, 2012, when he slipped out one night and got attacked by a coyote. Here's his final picture:

At that point I thought cat blogging was over, but I couldn't give it up. Today, Domino carries on the tradition by herself, which is as she thinks it should be. She'll be here tomorrow in her usual spot, of course.

It Turns Out That Obama Doesn't Hate Whitey After All

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 10:02 PM PDT

This promises to be fun. The Justice Department's Inspector General has released a report investigating charges that the Civil Rights Division has been misbehaving. The short answer is: Yes during the Bush adminstration, no during the Obama administration. In particular, the IG took a look at a longstanding Fox News pet rock, the handling of the voter intimidation case against the New Black Panthers, and concluded that there was political interference from Obama's political appointees. But not quite the kind that conservatives think. Here's Adam Serwer:

The Inspector General's report, like a previous OPR report, found that the decision to narrow the New Black Panther case was "based on a good faith assessment of the law and facts of the case," not on anti-white racism or corruption. The report also concludes that the political leadership at Justice did influence the handling of the New Black Panther case—but not improperly—by insisting that that the case could not be dismissed outright. This turns the GOP attack on its head, for Republican critics have accused the Obama administration of trying to bury the case to protect a black separatist group. The IG notes no such thing was done.

Rather than interfering with the case because Obama loves the Black Panthers and hates whitey, DOJ leadership interfered to make sure the case continued. In fact, the report says that in early 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder paid a visit to the voting section and declared that he "would not tolerate any politicized enforcement or hiring in the division, including retaliation from his own political staff."

Needless to say, none of this is likely to slow down conservatives. There are always tidbits here and there that can be cherry picked, and as Adam says, "The IG report, no doubt, will provide the division's conservative foes with just enough material to continue their crusade." No doubt.

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We Have a New Pope

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 12:17 PM PDT

And the new pope is....

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, age 76, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who is now styled Pope Francis. A dark horse!

He was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. The TV talking heads say he is, relatively speaking, a reformer, though I'm not sure what that means in real terms. I guess we'll find out. And with that, I'm off to lunch.

Judicial Confirmations Update: Political Science Weighs In!

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 11:37 AM PDT

In my previous post, I wrote that Republicans are now blocking not just judicial nominees who are relatively extreme, but anyone who's ever written something that a conservative interest group objects to. Matt Corley tweets that this reminds him of a paper written a few years ago on exactly this subject.

Nancy Scherer, Brandon Bartels, and Amy Steigerwalt took a look at what factors were most likely to hold up a judicial nominee in the Senate. Their data spans the years from 1985 to 2004 and their conclusion is pretty simple: it's interest groups uber alles. Take a look at the chart above. On the left, you see what happens to judicial nominees when they're ideologically in sync with the Senate. If interest groups don't weigh in (black bar), they get approved in an average of 44 days. When conservative interest groups are opposed, this skyrockets to 156 days. When liberal interest groups are opposed, it takes 83 days.

What's interesting is that this doesn't change much when the nominee is ideologically distant from the Senate. When interest groups don't raise alarms, nominees take only slightly longer to get confirmed: 58 days instead of 44. It's interest group opposition that sends this through the roof. Senators don't really care that much how extreme a candidate is. They only care if their own interest groups sound the alarm.

What seems to be happening now is that interest groups always sound an alarm and this is slowing judicial confirmations to a standstill across the board. Interest groups—especially conservative ones—rule us all.

Maybe We Need a Grand Bargain Over Judges?

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 10:07 AM PDT

Jeffrey Toobin wrote yesterday about a familiar problem: the all-but-total obstruction of judicial nominees by Senate Republicans. James Joyner comments:

There’s an argument to be made for high level scrutiny being applied to federal judges generally—it’s a lifetime appointment, after all—and for appellate judges in particular—they set precedent that guides thousands of cases. While my longstanding view is that a 60 vote requirement for confirmation is extraconstitutional, if not unconstitutional, I’m amenable to the argument that judicial nominees ought to be well within the mainstream; presidents shouldn’t be able to radicalize the legal system for decades to come by virtue of a slim Senate majority.

But we’re well past that. Senate Republicans aren’t standing firm against radical judges but against Democratic judges. And, no, the two aren’t synonymous; the American people have, after all, elected a Democratic president two cycles in a row and Democrats got more votes for both the House and Senate as well.

Neither party has been entirely consistent on this, nor entirely on the side of the angels. The problem is that obstruction keeps getting ratcheted upward, and it's now gotten to the point where Republicans are not only filibustering nominees they truly find objectionable, but anyone who has ever in their careers written something that a conservative interest group objects to. In the recent case of Caitlin Halligan, it was a brief she wrote about holding gun manufacturers liable for their products. Not only was this only one document in a long career, it's a document that doesn't even represent Halligan's own views. It was written at the direction of her boss at the time, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

But although filibustering Halligan was pretty indefensible, that's still not the worst of it. Even nominees that Republicans don't object to are being stonewalled. Richard Taranto was confirmed earlier this week for a judgeship 91-0, but only after being forced to wait 484 days. Why? Because the longer the process is drawn out, the less other business the Senate can conduct. Judicial nominees are now mere bargaining chips in Republican games to keep the Senate from accomplishing anything. The White House infographic on the right tells the basic story.

I can only assume that Republicans are banking on Democrats being unwilling to escalate this war even further the next time a Republican is president. Or maybe they're treating this the same way they do the deficit: if they make things bad enough on their watch, Democrats practically have no choice except to repair things on theirs. Both seem like risky bets. If there's a grand bargain we need right now, it's not really over the deficit. It's over the growing inability to effectively govern the country because too many positions, both judicial and executive, are being left vacant for purely political reasons. Maybe we need a bit of presidential schmoozing over this.

Henry Waxman Has Another New Carbon Tax Proposal

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 9:13 AM PDT

Brad Plumer informs me today that Henry Waxman and a team of fellow Democrats have released a draft proposal to tax carbon emissions. One way to make this go down more easily is to make it revenue neutral: use the money from the carbon tax to lower other taxes, something the authors suggest they're doing. The bill, says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, upholds an important principle: "that all of the revenue generated through this carbon fee will be returned to the American people."

But in the request for public discussion that follows, here's one of the points they want feedback on:

What are the best ways to return the revenue to the American people? The discussion draft proposes putting the revenue toward the following goals, and solicits comments on how to best accomplish each: (1) mitigating energy costs for consumers, especially low-income consumers; (2) reducing the Federal deficit; (3) protecting jobs of workers at trade-vulnerable, energy intensive industries; (4) reducing the tax liability for individuals and businesses; and (5) investing in other activities to reduce carbon pollution and its effects.

I'm all in favor of taxing carbon, but I'm afraid that no Republican alive will consider any of these except (4) to represent a return of the money to the American people. The rest are just federal spending programs. I'm glad to see these guys keeping a carbon tax in the public eye, but I'm afraid this has a roughly zero chance of going anywhere.