Kevin Drum

Journos Whine, Sanford Cries, and Ensign Sighs (with Relief)

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 3:23 PM EDT

Boy, did I pick wrong. The Gibbs presser was damn tame compared to the Sanford meltdown. The hottest issue—or non-issue—at the White House was HuffPo's Nico Pitney's question at Tuesday's presidential press conference. This topic did lead to a somewhat interesting display. The front-row journos—who usually get called on during presidential news conference—complained that the Pitney set-up created the impression that reporters (like themselves) are in cahoots with the White House. Robert Gibbs pushed back by noting that he believed that CBS and other Big Media are certainly in the position to disabuse viewers of that notion. He then called on practically every reporter in the first two rows and asked each one if he or she had ever told the White House what he or she intended to ask at a press conference. Each one dutifully said no. Still, they were upset by the HuffPo episode.

At the same time, reporters in the lesser rows—those who don't tend to be called on by the president and who are not always afforded questioning opportunities during Gibbs' briefings—tried to exploit Nico-gate to raise another issue: how does the White House decide who makes it on to the prepared list of journalists President Obama will call on at a news conference. Gibbs ducked that query. For my money, that's the more important matter—but, not surprisingly, not for the guys and gals in the front rows. (You can read my Twitter feed for the details.)

Back to Mark Sanford. After his sad, wife-less press conference, during which he admitted an extramarital affair and stated he would resign as chair of the Republican Governors Association (not from his governor's post), Senator John Ensign, no doubt, said, "Thank you, Governor."

And that's no joke. Two hours before Sanford cried on TV, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a public interest group that chases after government wrongdoing, sent out a notice that it has filed complaints against Ensign with the Senate ethics committee and the Federal Elections Committee.

The group explains that Ensign's actions during his own extramarital escapade might have violated Senate ethics rules and campaign law:

First, Mr. Hampton has alleged Sen. Ensign terminated him and his wife for reasons related to the affair. If true, the senator likely engaged in discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII, and Senate Rule 42, which incorporates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Senate employees and prohibits discrimination based on sex. At least two members of Congress previously have been investigated for sexual harassment, including former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) and former Rep. Jim Bates (D-CA).

Second, Ms. Hampton apparently received a severance payment directly from Sen. Ensign when she was terminated from the campaign committee and PAC, but neither committee reported any in-kind contribution by the senator. In addition, if Sen. Ensign paid Ms. Hampton more than $5,000 he may have made an illegal excessive contribution to the PAC. Knowingly failing to report a contribution of over $25,000 is a violation of criminal law.

Mr. Hampton apparently was paid $6,000 upon his departure, purportedly for vacation time. If this actually was some sort of severance payment, Sen. Ensign’s office may have misused official funds.

CREW has alleged Sen. Ensign violated the rules prohibiting improper conduct that reflects upon the Senate by abusing his authority as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to hire and pay the Hampton’s son as an intern at the NRSC and by claiming to have been blackmailed by Mr. Hampton, without reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement authorities.

Remember what the Republicans used to say. It's not about the sex, it's about the deceit. Does that hold true for Ensign? Will GOPers support an investigation of these allegations?

The Republican Senator from Nevada—like Sanford, once a 2012 presidential propsect—did get a lucky break with the Sanford press conference. But he's now part of an even bigger narrative: what's with these guys who represent the party of family values? And what's next? Newt Gingrich leaving his wife for another woman? Oh yeah, been there, done that. Twice.

 

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Mark Sanford or Robert Gibbs: What Would You Do?

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 1:13 PM EDT

Robert Gibbs' daily press briefing is scheduled for 1:45 at the White House. Recently MIA South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is holding a televised press conference at 2:00 pm. What to do? I usually attend the White House briefing, but....Okay, I'll stick to routine. I'm off to the White House to Twitter the briefing. I suppose any major Sanford meltdown will be on YouTube.

Cap and Trade in the Dark?

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

Here's some disturbing info on the climate change bill moving through Congress. From a press release put out by the Sunlight Foundation:

Washington, DC - This Friday, Congress plans to vote on a bill that could fundamentally alter the American economy, dramatically affect the climate, and have huge implications for our national security. But, right now no one knows what's in the bill or how it came to be.

Last week, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the "Cap and Trade Energy Bill"), or H.R. 2454, was 946 pages long. Over the weekend, it ballooned to 1,201 pages with no explanation for how or why. It is currently only available online at the House Rules Committee, and is reported as "text of the bill to be introduced." This legislative maneuvering reminds us of the failure of Congress to make bills properly available before consideration.

In a statement today, Sunlight Foundation Engagement Director Jake Brewer said, "The fastest speed-readers and the most intelligent minds can't make informed decisions with that much time. How can Congress?" He continued, "The problem here is the bill wasn't developed in the open in a committee, so no one--including those members of Congress not on the Energy Committee-knows how this latest version was created."

It's very likely that even many of those advocating for or against this legislation won't know what was inserted or what the final bill will be, since changes will be accepted right up until 9:30am on Thursday morning before an intended vote on Friday....

Without proper public and journalistic oversight, it may be too late for the cap and trade energy bill. It will likely become another case study in Sunlight's hall of shamefully rushed bills.

Earlier today, I noted that Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, the two lead authors of the bill, are honorable legislators and passionate about redressing the negative consequences of climate change. Still, folks on and off the Hill ought to know--and understand--what's in the bill before it reaches a vote.

Spinning Health Care Reform

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

How does the health care industry spin the media to protect its turf? Columbia Journalism Review's Trudy Lieberman interviews Wendell Potter, a former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, the country’s fourth-largest insurer (and the insurer of the Corn household). And Potter tells all. He shares an insider's perspective we rarely get:

Trudy Lieberman: Why did you leave CIGNA?

Wendell Potter: I didn’t want to be part of another health insurance industry effort to shape reform that would benefit the industry at the expense of the public.

TL: Was there anything in particular that turned you against the industry?

WP: A couple of years ago I was in Tennessee and saw an ad for a health expedition in the nearby town of Wise, Virginia. Out of curiosity I went and was overwhelmed by what I saw. Hundreds of people were standing in line to get free medical care in animal stalls. Some had camped out the night before in the rain. It was like being in a different country. It moved me to tears. Shortly afterward I was flying in a corporate jet and realized someone’s insurance premiums were paying for me to fly that way. I knew it wasn’t long before I had to leave the industry. It was like my road to Damascus.

Mick Jagger and the Climate Change Bill

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 10:31 AM EDT

It's not a big surprise that John Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress and who ran President Barack Obama's transition, has endorsed the imperfect Waxman-Markey climate change legislation. Podesta, who has long worked on climate change, writes

Once again, Mick Jagger is right: “You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try, sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need.” The House of Representatives is poised for its first ever floor debate on legislation to reduce global warming pollution. This landmark bill is revolutionary in its intent and, while imperfect in its means, deserves the support of progressives.

Podesta is a smart fellow, but he has this Rolling Stones reference backward. If you believe the scientists—and I believe them—then we need a greater and faster reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than we would get from this bill. Unlike, say, the public health plan option, this is not a matter of obtaining merely what progressives want.

Best in Blog: 24 June 2009

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

Today's three MoJo picks:

1) Can Michelle Obama Save Health Care Reform?

David Corn: On a day when the politerati focused on President Obama's press conference (Iran, health care, Iran, health care, the economy, smoking, Iran), Chris Matthews, Richard Wolffe, and I went off-topic to discuss whether Michelle Obama can help her husband sell the health care bill now under construction in Congress. Watch the video.

 

2) Barney Frank to F-22: Drop Dead

Rachel Morris: Rep. Barney Frank has authored an amendment that would remove funding for the extra F-22s that the House Armed Services committee slipped into the defense budget authorization bill last week. Here's the story so far.

 

3) Will Europe Out-Whale Japan?

Jen Phillips: The International Whaling Commmission is meeting in Portugal this week, and there's a small Japanese fishing town that gives dead whales Buddhist names. Really! Read more.

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Jake Tapper, Mensch

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 7:25 AM EDT

Kevin's gone for a few days. He says he's in NYC, but I wonder if he's off hiking with South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford. During this brief sabbatical, I will be filling in. Feel free to let me know how you think I'm doing in the comments section. By the way, I should let you know this: I'm allergic to cats. -- David Corn

An event happened yesterday at the White House that warrants notice and a hat tip to Jake Tapper of ABC News.

I know, bloggers are usually supposed to hold MSMers in disdain—especially White House correspondents. But during the presidential press conference, Tapper did what few White House reporters do: when President Barack Obama didn't answer another reporter's question, Tapper held him accountable.

Vacation Time

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 1:01 AM EDT

Remember I said a few weeks ago that I'd be taking a short vacation in New York City in a few weeks?  Well, the future is now, and that means I'm officially on vacation.  David Corn will be guest blogging here during my absence, and other folks from our DC bureau may chime in from time to time as well.  Be nice to 'em.  I'll be back next Tuesday.

Climate Change Hobbles Forward

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 12:55 AM EDT

Jay Newton-Small reports that Rep. Collin Peterson (D–Minn.) has finally managed to insert enough rapacious farm welfare language into the Waxman-Markey climate bill to satisfy himself and has now agreed to let the bill come to a vote on the House floor.  Then there's this:

Peterson, who said he represents the voting power of 45 Blue Dogs and House Agriculture Committee Democrats, told reporters late Tuesday that he didn't think they'd get a deal. “It was touch and go,” he said, shaking his head. Strikingly, Peterson said he dealt little with the Administration in the negotiations — speaking instead with Waxman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama pushed for the legislation in remarks Tuesday, but the Administration has been markedly less involved in the climate change bill than in the stimulus, budget or health care reform. Once the global warming bill clears the House, though, it faces a far from certain future in the Senate where Obama's support will be more keenly needed.

Ugly, ugly, ugly.  Still, if that last part is true, let's hope Obama decides to get a little more involved in things going forward.  The Senate is not exactly the place were mediocre bills are sent to get better, after all, and this one really can't afford to get much worse.

And while we're on the subject of legislation, if you're the kind of person who contributes money to Democratic candidates and fundraising groups, Jonathan Zasloff has some pretty good advice for you.  Click here to read it.

Obama and the Press

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 8:56 PM EDT

Walter Shapiro, after watching Barack Obama reply sharply to a couple of questions at today's press conference, offers up a theory:

In response to the next question — about the potential consequences if Iran continued to suppress demonstrations — Obama said with a sharp edge in his voice, "We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. Okay?"

Now I am not going to claim that the First Amendment requires presidents always to wear smiley faces when taking questions from reporters. Nor am I going to deny that occasionally — very occasionally — the short-term mindset of the press pack can be irritating for presidents with a more transcendent view of global events.

Instead, I am bringing this up because I want to tentatively advance a larger theory about the president's public moods. Obama tends to drop his cool veneer and sound exasperated when he knows that he is in the wrong.

Hmmm.  I suppose there might be something to this, but I have a different theory: the press only really gets disturbed by Obama's occasional acid tongue when it's aimed at the press.  On a later question about Obama's struggle to quit smoking, Shapiro says, "Words alone cannot convey Obama's mocking tone and his obvious disdain for this 'human-interest story,'" but I watched that part of the press conference and it seemed like a pretty mild dig to me.  You can judge for yourself above.

There's a convention in American politics that says politicians can manipulate the press behind the scenes as much as they like, and for the most part no grumbling is allowed.  It's all part of the game.  On camera, the rules are supposed to be same: the president is expected to pretend that every reporter is serious and well-briefed and every question is smart and penetrating.  But Obama doesn't always like to play by those rules.  He's occasionally willing to pull back the curtain on the media's inanity and to call a dumb question a dumb question.  Unsurprisingly, reporters don't like this much.

Shapiro headlined his post, "Pushing the President's Buttons."  But I think it might have been the other way around: the president was pushing his.