Kevin Drum - May 2013

Help! Who Wrote the Greatest Congressional Fundraising Story of All Time?

| Tue May 28, 2013 1:28 PM EDT

In a post about the role of money in politics, Jonathan Bernstein tosses in this aside:

It's absolutely ridiculous for Members of Congress to have built for themselves an expectation that they should spend four hours a day raising money.

(By the way: we have good reporting that such an expectation exists, and good reporting that Members spend way too much time raising money...but I have to admit I'm pretty skeptical of this four hours a day business. Do they really do that, day in, day out? Or do most of them reluctantly do a lot less (although still enough to cut way too much into their real jobs), but exaggerate it for the reporter's notebook? Again, I'm not denying that it's a big deal; just questioning the specific claim).

About eight or nine years ago (I think), someone wrote a phenomenal article about the life of a freshman member of Congress. As I recall, the reporter basically followed this guy around and documented the insane amount of time he spent on fundraising, including the two or three hours each evening spent in a basement cubicle provided by the RNC (or DNC). The cubicle contained a chair and a phone, and the congressman went down there daily armed with a list of a hundred calls to make, provided by his staff. And then he started dialing.

But where did this piece appear? The Washington Post? The New Republic? Those seem the most likely places to me, but I haven't been able to find it in either place. And it's a shame. It was a great piece, and I've wanted to reread it ever since. But I can't remember who wrote it or where it appeared, and I also can't remember enough unique search words to google it.

Help me, hive mind, you're my only hope.

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A Smarter Approach to Smart

| Tue May 28, 2013 12:21 PM EDT

A few years ago I wrote a blog post complaining about the increasingly widespread use of the word "smart" within the blogosphere. Every article that someone admired was praised as a "smart piece" or "smart pushback." People were all "smart critics." It was becoming one of those words that gets overused because it sounds sort of insidery and, um, smart without really saying much of anything.

Anyway, I think I wrote that post. I can't find it, though, so maybe I only imagined writing it. Today, though, Ben Yagoda writes it again, and even provides us with a bit of history of the word. Smart!

Some mid-19th-century OED citations, with their quotation marks, allow you to see the beginnings of the (seemingly then Texan, now all-over American) sense of “intelligent”.... Still, this sense took a while to become the dominant American one. I sampled the Times’ use of smart in 1913, 100 years ago, and 90 percent or more of the time it meant stylish rather than intelligent.

....By 1965, the percentage was roughly reversed. I chose that year because it was then, according to Google Ngram data, that smart started a gradual ascent in the United States. It really took off beginning in the late ’80s, and surpassed intelligent in 2000.

I didn't know that! In any case, Yagoda is nominating smart to be word of the year. My preference would be to stuff it in a barrel and not let it out until everyone has gotten it out of their systems. There are too many smart people in the world for it to mean much as a personal description, and when it comes to pieces of writing—well, just tell me what you liked about it. Don't just lazily tell me it was smart.

In my high school German class, whenever our teacher asked us what we thought of something, we'd reply that it was sehr interessant. This basically became a class joke. We didn't actually know enough German vocabulary to describe much of anything, so whenever we were on the spot, we'd just nod our heads, intone sehr interessant and then laugh. But at least we laughed! I think smart deserves about the same treatment these days.

Obamacare is More Popular Than CNN Thinks

| Tue May 28, 2013 11:00 AM EDT

From CNN:

A majority of Americans still oppose the nation's new health care measure, three years after it became law, according to a new survey.

According to the poll, 43% of the public says it supports the health care law....Fifty-four percent of those questioned say they oppose the law, also relatively unchanged since 2010. The survey indicates that 35% oppose the health care law because it's too liberal, with 16% saying they oppose the measure because it isn't liberal enough.

Right. Let me rephrase this:

According to a recent poll, 59 percent of Americans support Obamacare, while 35 percent oppose it. Among supporters, 43 percent support the law as is, while 16 percent think it doesn't go far enough.

The way CNN words the question in this poll, they almost have no choice but to say that 54 percent of the public opposes Obamacare. But that's wildly misleading. If you oppose Obamacare solely because you think it should be more generous, then you're not part of the group that's commonly thought of as the opposition: tea partiers, conservatives, Republicans, and so forth. These are the folks who want to repeal Obamacare completely and leave it a smoking husk, and they're the ones most of us think of as the "opposition." If your main problem with Obamacare is that it's not the NHS, you aren't part of that group.

This has been a problem with Obamacare polls since the beginning. It's also been a problem with CNN polls since the beginning. Why do they refuse to fix it and describe things more accurately?

The Post Office is Failing, and It's Congress's Fault

| Tue May 28, 2013 10:11 AM EDT

The Postal Service is losing money and needs to make changes. The problem is that Congress refuses to let it raise more money, refuses to let it spend less money, and refuses to let it cut service:

Postal officials recently tried to end Saturday letter delivery, which could have saved $2 billion per year, but Congress blocked it. A legislative proposal to replace doorstep delivery with curbside delivery, which would save $4.5 billion, failed last year. A plan to close thousands of rural post offices was abandoned after postal officials deemed the closures would "upset Congress a great deal," Barnett said.

But one of the Postal Service's biggest problems has nothing to do with the mail. Its finances sank in fiscal year 2007, shortly after Congress passed the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. The act, among other things, required the Postal Service to start pre-funding the health benefits of future retirees 50 years in advance at a rate of about $5.6 billion a year. The year after the act was passed, Postal Service ledgers showed a loss of $5.1 billion.

....The act also limited the Postal Service's ability to raise rates, forbidding increases larger than the federal consumer price index. America's stamps, now 46 cents, are among the cheapest in the world's developed countries.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if the post office deunionized, suddenly its problems would be over. Republicans would be delighted to give it all the funding it needed. Until then, though, the more problems the better.

Filibuster Summer is Coming Our Way

| Tue May 28, 2013 12:59 AM EDT

In recent years, the DC Court of Appeals has been busily at work trying to undermine as much of President Obama's agenda as they can get their eager little right-wing hands on. Republicans, needless to say, think this is a fine thing, which means they're none too eager to let Obama fill the court's open vacancies with judges who might not be quite such committed Federalist Society members. The filibuster is their weapon of choice to keep the court stacked with conservative judges, but today the New York Times reports that Obama is finally getting ready to fight back by submitting nominees for all three open vacancies simultaneously:

In trying to fill the three vacancies on the 11-member United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at once, Mr. Obama will be adopting a more aggressive nomination strategy. He will effectively be daring Republicans to find specific ground to filibuster all the nominees.

....Democrats say Republicans in the Senate have violated long-standing traditions by routinely requiring 60 votes to approve even the most uncontroversial legislation or nomination. Democrats are preparing to escalate the dispute this summer by scheduling numerous confirmation votes in a short period of time. If, as Democrats expect, Republicans block those nominations, Mr. Obama and his allies hope the public will notice.

With enough public pressure, some Democrats hope that they could change the Senate rules to prohibit filibusters on judicial nominations and in some other areas.

The strategy appears to be simple: nominate three judges who are left-of-center but basically uncontroversial, giving Republicans no legitimate hook for opposition. If they filibuster anyway, implicitly breaking their promise earlier this year to rein in their obstructionism, maybe centrist Democrats can finally be persuaded to support serious filibuster reform. And the plan, apparently, is to do this at the same time that Republicans are likely to be ramping up yet another hostage-taking exercise over the debt ceiling, thus providing yet more evidence of their extremism. Should be fun.

The New York Times Provides a Few New Tidbits on the Rosen Affair

| Sat May 25, 2013 2:16 PM EDT

Why did the Justice Department accuse Fox News reporter James Rosen of committing a crime in its application for a warrant to search his email account? The New York Times explains today:

Investigators routinely search the e-mails of suspected leakers, but Congress has forbidden search warrants for journalists’ work product materials unless the reporter committed a crime. A 2010 affidavit seeking the warrant — necessary, an F.B.I. agent wrote, because the analyst had deleted e-mails in his own accounts — declared that Mr. Rosen qualified for that exception because he violated the Espionage Act by seeking secrets to report.

In other words, they had to accuse Rosen of a crime in order to get the warrant approved. It was all pro forma, and doesn't suggest anything one way or the other about whether they ever intended to actually charge Rosen with anything.

There's also this interesting tidbit from the same story:

While Fox News was informed nearly three years ago about the subpoena for call logs for five lines related to Mr. Rosen — apparently after the phone company had already provided them — it did not publicly disclose the action. Instead, it emerged only this month when court papers were unsealed that also showed that the government had separately obtained a warrant for the contents of Mr. Rosen’s private e-mail account. A lawyer and spokesmen for Fox did not respond to requests for comment.

So Fox has known about this since 2010. They only went public with the outrage when it became convenient to slot it in as part of Scandalmania™. How about that.

UPDATE: Ah. We have answers on the Fox News thing. Apparently DOJ sent its notification of the subpoena to the parent company, News Corp., not Fox News itself, and News Corp. never passed this along to Fox. If this is true, Fox really did learn about this only recently.

UPDATE 2: Via Twitter, Ryan Lizza and others are intensely critical of this post. They may be right. So let me expand a bit on this.

The basic complaint is that I'm not taking seriously the implication of my post: that DOJ included the allegation that Rosen had committed a crime not because they believed it, but simply because that's what they needed to do in order to get the warrant approved. In other words, they lied. That's possible. However, it's also possible that they did suspect Rosen of committing a crime, and changed their mind after they read his email exchanges with Stephen Jin-Woo Kim. A third possibility is that they believed, and continue to believe, that Rosen committed a crime, but have simply chosen not to prosecute. That happens all the time.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing which of these is true because DOJ isn't talking. Nor do we have Rosen's side of this because he isn't talking either. So it's all speculation. This is what I meant when I said this "doesn't suggest anything one way or the other" about DOJ's actual intentions. We simply don't know. But the Times story is nonetheless interesting because it explains why the allegations about Rosen had to be in the warrant.

I've already made my position clear on the warrant: I don't think it was justified. At the same time, it seems very odd that Rosen potentially blew the existence of a high-level North Korean source just for the sake of a trivial story that told us nothing new. I'd like to know whether he really did, or if his throwaway line about "sources inside North Korea" didn't actually reveal anything that wasn't already public. It also seems odd that Fox stayed mum about this for three years. I'd like to understand that better too.

Something about the Rosen case just doesn't add up. But a lot of people don't seem to be taking the possible outing of an intelligence source very seriously. They're acting as if the DOJ prosecution is over a completely meaningless story. That might be, but I think a bit less circling the wagons, and a bit more serious questioning, might be in order here.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 24 May 2013

| Fri May 24, 2013 1:55 PM EDT

It's probably time for another round of quiltblogging, but that will have to wait until next week. Why? Because this week I got my lovely new Mother Jones T-shirt and Domino immediately curled up on it.

I'll bet you didn't know I was a union thug, did you? Well, I am—though, disappointingly, I've never received a union card. Domino, however, misunderstood when I told her California wasn't a right-to-work state, figuring that this meant it must be a right-to-not-work state, which exempts her from paying union dues. Probably all for the best. The discipline of a picket line is not for her.

Today in Grandstanding Senators

| Fri May 24, 2013 1:29 PM EDT

The Economist's Jon Fasman reports on the latest political pandering from a member of the Greatest Deliberative Body On Earth:

On Wednesday David Vitter (pictured), a Republican senator from Louisiana, proposed—and the Senate agriculture committee accepted—an amendment to the farm bill that would, in Mr Vitter's words, "prohibit convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps." It's not hard to see why this amendment passed. All Mr Vitter needed to do was propose it []. Then the tacit question arises: Does anyone in this chamber want to stand up and say that taxpayers should feed murderers, rapists and pedophiles? No? Of course not.

This is revolting. It obviously has no fiscal impact worth mentioning, and just as clearly does nothing to reduce the future rate of murder, rape, or pedophilia. It's just pure political grandstanding from a guy who knows an amendment like this will play well with the rubes back home. It's a mindless glorification of barbarism for the sake of a few votes.

If you think the current sentencing standards for murder, rape, and pedophilia are too lenient, then lobby to change them. Until then, though, anyone who's released from prison is someone who's done their time and paid their debt. Their punishment at the hands of the justice system is sufficient. They don't deserve more at the hands of every showboating senator with his next election on his mind.

Chart of the Day: Sequester Cuts Are Starting to Bite

| Fri May 24, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

The number of people who are feeling the effect of the sequester continues to rise. It's now up to 37 percent, and unsurprisingly, that's affecting what people think of it:

More Americans continue to disapprove than approve of sequestration, now by 56-35 percent — again, a view influenced by experience of the cuts. Eight in 10 of those who report serious harm oppose the cuts, as do about two-thirds of those slightly harmed. But the majority, which has felt no impacts, divides exactly evenly — 46 percent favor the cuts, vs. 46 percent opposed.

Further, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that 39 percent overall “strongly” disapprove of the cuts — but that soars to 66 percent of those who say they’ve been harmed in a major way.

Despite these results, I'll stick to my earlier prediction: this isn't enough to affect Congress. Overall, disapproval of the sequester has gone up only three points since March, and by the time that number gets much higher, September will be here and the dumb sequester cuts will be gone. Congress will replace them with more targeted cuts in the FY2014 budget, and those targets will be selected to minimize the yelling from interest groups they care about. Republicans may need to gut things out a bit this summer, but they'll manage to hang on.

Sadly for Republicans, Obamacare Not Likely to Be a Train Wreck

| Fri May 24, 2013 11:35 AM EDT

Is Obamacare fated to be a "train wreck"? Matt Yglesias says no, but warns us of what to expect as it rolls out:

You have to remember a few basic facts about ACA implementation coverage over the next 18 months. One is that the media has a large negativity bias. The other is that the aspirations of the law are quite high, and the status quo is quite bad. That means any time the situation improves but doesn't improve as much as the Obama administration wanted things to improve, that will tend to be covered as "bad news for Obamacare." That tendency will be re-enforced because Republicans will be eager to trumpet Obamacare's shortcomings (to make Obama look bad), and advocates for the poor will also be eager to trumpet Obamacare's shortcomings (to build pressure for improvement). So you'll hear lots of completely accurate stories about things not working quite as well as proponents had hoped. Just recall that this is always how things go.

Obamacare will suffer from what I call the "big country problem": in a big country, even a tiny percentage is a big absolute number. This means that even something rare can be made to look common. Obamacare is a classic case: it's a gigantic, bureaucratic program that affects tens of millions of people, and that means it will inevitably run into lots of problems. A 99 percent success rate, after all, would still mean hundreds of thousands of horror stories. This is going to give the Fox News set plenty of opportunities to insist that the sky is falling.

But it probably won't be. Obamacare will have plenty of growing pains, and on a broader scale it will have unintended effects that genuinely need to be addressed. This will be harder to do than usual since Republicans are rooting for failure and will be generally unwilling to tweak the law to improve it. Hopefully this will change over time as constituent pressure mounts, but we'll have to wait and see about that.

In the meantime, if you want to know where the "train wreck" metaphor came from in the first place, and how it's been mangled beyond recognition over the past few months, Dave Weigel has you covered.