Kevin Drum

Earmarks

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:00 PM PST
CQ reports on the latest earmark scandal:

More than 100 House members secured earmarks in a major spending bill for clients of a single lobbying firm — The PMA Group — known for its close ties to John P. Murtha , the congressman in charge of Pentagon appropriations.

....PMA’s offices have been raided, and the firm closed its political action committee last week amid reports that the FBI is investigating possibly illegal campaign contributions to Murtha and other lawmakers.

No matter what the outcome of the federal investigation, PMA’s earmark success illustrates how a well-connected lobbying firm operates on Capitol Hill. And earmark accountability rules imposed by the Democrats in 2007 make it possible to see how extensively PMA worked the Hill for its clients.

Now that's how the game is played: 100 congressmen, $300 million in spending, and $1 million in campaign contributions.  And it might even be illegal!  Or not.  But while we're waiting to find out, click here if you're curious to see if your congress critter was involved.

UPDATE: Stuart Staniford, who obviously has way too much time on his hands, sends along a scattergram of earmarks vs. campaign contributions that demonstrates the difference between Democratic and Republican corruption: "Republicans apparently do this stuff pretty much for a small flat fee (on average) but Democrats need to be paid about 1/2 cent on the dollar."  Coincidence?  Science says no!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bipartisanship

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:49 PM PST
Mike Tomasky defends Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans:

The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.

But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.

But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.

True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.

This is a good point, but frankly, I'd go further.  I'd say those meetings were almost entirely about optics.  The fact is that Republican critics are right: Obama really didn't do much beyond symbolism to reach out to the GOP during the crafting of the stimulus package.

I know, I know: $300 billion in tax cuts, lots of yakking, family planning cuts, etc. etc.  But seriously.  Was any of that really the result of negotiating with Republicans?  The tax cuts were mostly in there for two reasons: (a) they were campaign promises, and (b) the Obama team couldn't come up with $800 billion in spending that would feed into the economy fast enough.  Tax cuts weren't there because Obama asked Republicans what they wanted in the bill, they were there because he didn't have much choice.

Beyond that, what did Republicans get?  Nothing much.  A few symbolic cuts in culture war outlays that are almost certain to be restored in the regular budget anyway.  Some meetings where Obama listened carefully, said some soothing words, and didn't change a thing.  And that's about it.  In the end the final package included some modest changes demanded by three centrist Republicans, but that was only because they held the whip hand and were able to force them on him.  Bipartisanship had nothing to do with it.

And you know what? I think this is fine.  The crackpot wing of the GOP was never going to come around anyway (they're going to need several more years in the wilderness before they start to regain their sanity), and in the meantime Obama gets to bask in warm national glow of having tried his best.  Eventually this will pay off as a few vulnerable Republicans figure out that endless obstructionism isn't doing them any good in the polls — and look over there, there's a midterm election coming up!  Then, suddenly, genuine bipartisanship will be back in style.  And Obama will end up the winner.

Kurdistan

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 11:28 AM PST
The recent provincial elections in Iraq excluded the four provinces of Kurdistan but did include the mixed border province of Nineveh, which was won by Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party. McClatchy's Leila Fadel reports:

Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq [] the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.

....Because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ran on a strong central government platform and America's restraining influence will wane as U.S. troops draw down during the next three years, there may be nothing to stop a Kurdish-Arab war.

"They will actually try to draw a new green line," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "Kurds have been strong since 2003, and now they're not as strong and they've somewhat overreached. The question is: Are they going to concede some things or are they going to fight over this?"

"Violence could happen for sure," Hiltermann said. "Eventually, the strongest is going to win. The question is, who is the strongest? The Kurds have pushed the bridge too far, and they don't have the power to realize it."

The good news, I suppose, is that a Kurdish-Arab war has been right around the corner for years, but it never happens.  So maybe it won't this time either.  But this is still the soft underbelly of Iraqi federalism and worth keeping an eye on.

Oscar Time

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 10:58 AM PST
It occurred to me last week that I don't care about the Academy Awards this year.  Not a big deal, of course — lots of people don't care about them — but this is sort of unusual for me.  I'm not a huge film junkie or anything, but I probably see 30 or 40 movies a year and I always love watching the Oscars.  It's the only awards show I like.

But this year?  Eh.  If I miss it I won't care much.  It's the movies themselves, I guess.  The odds-on favorite for Best Picture is Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that was entertaining enough to watch but that wore badly on me the more I thought about it.  The game show schtick began to fray about halfway through, and the rest of the plot contrivances were worthy of a mediocre cable drama series.  If this had been an American movie made in Hollywood, it wouldn't have gotten a second look from anybody.

And the rest?  I enjoyed Benjamin Button, but it's an inch deep.  Frost/Nixon was OK but never really did much for me.  The Reader left me entirely cold.  By process of elimination, I guess that means my favorite is Milk, which had a great performance from Sean Penn but was otherwise pretty flat.

And the Best Actress category?  What a travesty.  Melissa Leo gave the best performance of the year, but Nate Silver says she has a 0% chance of winning, and who am I to argue with Nate Silver?  The two top picks, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, gave performances that I thought were grotesquely bad, and I can hardly stand the thought of seeing one of them take home the statue.

On the other hand, I'm OK with Heath Ledger winning for his Joker portrayal, and both Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn are good picks for Best Actor.  So it's not all bad.  More broadly, though, I can't remember the last time there wasn't even a single movie whose chances I cared much about.  How about you?

Down in the Hood

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 10:24 AM PST
The new chairman of the GOP really knows how connect with the youth of America:

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an “off the hook” public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

This is ridiculous.  I'm a 50-year-old white guy from Orange County, but even I've seen the nationally televised ad that makes clear just how antique that phrase is.  What's next?  A GOP initiative to attract all the hep cats from North Beach?

Carbon Dioxide Followup

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 9:48 AM PST
My post last night about the EPA regulating carbon dioxide emissions was a quickie, just intended to pass along the news and note some of the political implications.  But David Roberts says I may be downplaying how important these new EPA regs could be:

This element of Obama's impending energy policy hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. If he does it right, it could be the secret weapon that kills new coal plants for good — with far greater certainty than a middling cap-and-trade program. Obama has always said, to those who were listening closely, that he plans to prevent the construction of a new fleet of dirty coal plants, if not by carbon pricing then by other means. EPA regs are the other means. Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, EPA regs could hasten the demise of existing coal plants.

Read the whole thing for a more detailed understanding of what EPA may end up doing.  And for the wonks among you, David also has a more detailed explanation than I did of the difficulties with using the machinery of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

New coal plants are already expensive and hard to build.  If EPA institutes even modest new CO2 regs they'll become so prohibitively expensive that we'll never build another one on U.S. soil.  Politically, this will cause (a) howls of protest from the midwest, which relies heavily on coal-fired electricity, and (b) enormous pressure to set up an alternative regulatory regime.  But any plausible alternative, even if it's weaker than the EPA regs, is likely to raise the price of building a coal-fired power plant beyond what anyone is willing to pay for it.  There's a pretty good chance that this is, finally, the beginning of the end for coal.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Pack Journalism

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 9:33 AM PST
Ezra sez:

I love Mike Allen's Playbook. Unabashedly. I wouldn't even deny that it's "the 4chan of political reporting." But it's the best guide to the morning news, and Allen mixes "drive the day" trivia — and there is a lot of that — with a good eye for the substance in stories.

Eh.  Count me out.  We all complain about pack journalism and the glorification of process over policy, but then we all start out our days with.....Playbook.  And The Note.  And The Page.  And Memeorandum.  And then we all spend the rest of the day writing about the exact same bunch of process trivia because Mike Allen woke up before us and that's what he told us to write about.

There's nothing to be done about this.  It's human nature.  But I don't have to like it, and I don't.

California Budget Watch

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 8:57 AM PST
California finally has a budget, and all it took was a cigar-filled arm twisting session with Arnold Schwarzenegger to procure the final required Republican vote.  The arm twisting, however, wasn't done by Arnie:

Under the arrangement, Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria provided the final Republican vote needed to pass a spending plan with billions of dollars in tax hikes. In exchange, Democrats agreed to rewrite election rules that Maldonado said had allowed the Capitol to become paralyzed by partisanship, leading the state to the brink of financial ruin.

....Democrats initially said Maldonado's call for "open" primaries, in which voters could cross party lines and candidates of all parties would compete in the same primary, followed by a runoff of the top two vote-getters, was too substantial to be pushed through in a budget deal. But Maldonado said the current budget stalemate proved that California could not return to fiscal sanity without fundamental changes in the way it elects its representatives.

Stay tuned.  We've already been through this twice, first in 1996, with an open primary initiative that passed but was later ruled unconstitutional, and then again in 2004 with a modified initiative that failed.  Maldonado will get his ballot measure, but there's no telling if he can get it past the voters.

Regulating Carbon Dioxide

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 11:27 PM PST
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA is required to decide if carbon dioxide is a pollutant as defined by the Clean Air Act.  The Bush White House basically just ignored the ruling, but now there's a new sheriff in town:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

....Lisa P. Jackson, the new E.P.A. administrator, said in an interview that she had asked her staff to review the latest scientific evidence and prepare the documentation for a so-called endangerment finding....If the environmental agency determines that carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, it would set off one of the most extensive regulatory rule makings in history. Ms. Jackson knows that she would be stepping into a minefield of Congressional and industry opposition and said that she was trying to devise a program that allayed these worries.

This is sort of a good-news-bad-news situation.  The bad news is that the Clean Air Act probably isn't a very good vehicle for regulating greenhouse gases.  Its state-based machinery just wasn't built for something like this.  The good news is that this very fact might act as a spur for Congress to enact something better, such as a national carbon tax, cap-and-trade plan, or even simply some more appropriately designed regulation.  Of these, cap-and-trade seems to be the most likely candidate, since it has support both in Congress and the White House already, and it might pick up some Republican votes it wouldn't otherwise get if the alternative is to let the hated EPA start writing its own rules.

And if it doesn't act as a spur?  Then it's still good news, because it means at least we'll get something, even if it's not the most efficient regulatory regime we can imagine.  All things considered, I'm a fan of cap-and-trade myself, but I figure any port in a storm.  If I can't get what I want, I'll settle for the EPA at least getting the ball rolling.  Eventually the business community will scream hard enough to make Congress do something intelligent.

Sarah Palin Update

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:33 PM PST
Sarah Palin is the crack cocaine of political celebrities.  I want to ignore her, but I just can't.  And you can't either.  Admit it. Michael Leahy of the Washington Post serves up the latest embarrassment:

A couple of weeks before the Alaska legislature began this year's session, a bipartisan group of state senators on a retreat a few hours from here invited Gov. Sarah Palin to join them. Accompanied by a retinue of advisers, she took a seat at one end of a conference table and listened passively as Gary Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate, a former college history professor and a low-key Republican with a reputation for congeniality, expressed delight at her presence.

Would the governor, a smiling Stevens asked, like to share some of her plans and proposals for the coming legislative session?

Palin looked around the room and paused, according to several senators present. "I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot," she said finally, as the room became silent.

Never forget: this is the person who John McCain thought was qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.