Mojo - January 2009

Afghanistan: Still on the Back Burner?

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 11:37 AM PST

afghanistan-soldier-250x200.jpg

So far three daily press briefings at the White House for the new Obama administration, and only one question on the war in Afghanistan. That came on Monday when veteran Helen Thomas asked new press secretary Robert Gibbs, "Why does president want to send more troops to Afghanistan to kill people?"

It was not the most subtle way of raising the issue. But at least Thomas gave it a stab.

Afghanistan remains the forgotten war. But on the campaign trail, Barack Obama, noting he would end the war in Iraq and focus more on Afghanistan, promised to change that, The question is, will the change be for the better or not? Gibbs reminded Thomas that Obama has called Afghanistan a "rapidly deteriorating situation" and reported that Defense Secretary Bob Gates and military commanders have started a process "to evaluate our posture." He noted that Obama has said that more troops should be sent to Afghanistan.

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Geithner's Second Move Not So Good

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 10:31 AM PST

Give me a break. Last week, we heard that Obama's revolving door restrictions (which I applauded) would be bypassed for the new No. 2 man in the DOD, who as recently as 2008 had been chief lobbyist for Raytheon, a massive defense contractor.

Now we're hearing that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is making a recent lobbyist for Goldman Sachs named Mark Patterson his chief of staff. Less than a year ago, Patterson was going to Congress and the Treasury to pimp Goldman's interests. Now he'll play a pivotal role in handing out TARP funds to Goldman and others. How is this not an obviously impermissible conflict?

What makes this so bizarre is that Geithner just banned the use of TARP funds for lobbying purposes. (He literally did this earlier this morning.) He understands the... unhelpful role that lobbying can play when trying to make solid, untainted policy that is in the best interest of the public. And yet, somehow, he's decided to make Patterson his chief of staff. And somehow, Obama is letting him.

How many waivers until the revolving door rules become meaningless? And why issue rules in the first place if the administration has the right to disobey them whenever it deems necessary?

Geithner's First Move a Good One

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 9:31 AM PST

Today is Tim Geithner's first full day as Treasury Secretary, and he's already made me happy. Just a hour and a half ago, I posted a blog echoing calls for further restrictions on TARP funds, namely that banks receiving them shouldn't be able to use them to lobby Congress. And guess what? Roughly an hour ago, the AP went up with a story saying that Geithner had issued new rules stating exactly that. Good on ya, sir. (Via Sunlight)

The FDA's Walk of Shame

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 8:47 AM PST

A test case for the new government will be how it deals with the pharmaceutical industry, which rivals the gun manufacturers and tobacco companies for the position of most amoral industry in America.

Democrats have long been promising to stand up to Big Pharma on issues like Medicare drug pricing and importing drugs from Canada, but they've accomplished little since they won Congressional majorities in 2006. If they truly want to reign in the drugmakers now that they have the clout, they'll need to not only move forward on these hot-button issues, but also completely overhaul the Food and Drug Administration, which stands as one of the most corrupt and compromised bodies in the federal government today.

Last week offered a glimmer of hope, with a bipartisan bill aimed at one of the many scurrilous practices employed by drug companies to win swift approval for their products and push them on the public. Called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act of 2009, the legislation was introduced last Thursday by Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Aging, and Charles Grassley (R-IA), in the past a rare Republican voice opposing some of Big Pharma's outrages. They are calling for establishment of "a nationwide standard requiring drug, device and biologic makers to report payments to doctors to the Department of Health and Human Services and for those payments to be posted online in a user friendly way for public consumption."

Let's be clear: The proposed legislation doesn't say that doctors can't receive money (or expensive dinners, or luxury junkets) while they are testing or endorsing new drugs; it merely says the payments have to be made public. Even this, however, has apparently proven too much for the Food and Drug Administration: A report released earlier this month found that the FDA had been sorely lax in demanding full disclosure of these relationships. As reported by Bloomberg News:

Drug regulators haven't done enough to force disclosure of financial conflicts of interest among the researchers who conduct clinical trials of medications and medical devices, according to a U.S. government investigation. A total of 42 percent of marketing applications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were missing financial information that was supposed to be submitted by drug and device makers, according to a report today by the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general. The FDA didn't act against the companies, the report said.

Financial connections between companies that make drugs and devices and the doctors and other researchers who test them on humans may compromise the safety of patients in studies and the integrity of the results, according to the inspector general's report. Lawmakers, led by Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, have raised concern that financial conflicts of interest among doctors and manufacturers may influence prescribing decisions.


The FDA has fallen a long way since 1962, when legendary Senator Estes Kefauver championed its expansion, insisting that it was the federal government's responsibility to protect the public by ensuring that prescription drugs were both safe and efficacious. The FDA has for decades been playing footsy with the drug industry, and it reached new lows under George W. Bush, as fundamentalist Christianity became yet another force undermining the agency's work. Bush's appointments to the FDA leadership included a veterinarian who presided over the Vioxx scandal and stalled the Plan B pill, and a faith-based gynecologist who refused to prescribe contraceptives to married women and advised prayer as a treatment for many female ailments.

In a 2006 survey of FDA employees, more than 40 percent said they knew of cases in which political appointees had interfered with agency decisions. At that time, more than 100 whistleblower cases were also pending at the agency. Some things will now surely change at the FDA--but how much, and how soon?

Israeli Army Deploys Antelope In Battle Against Hezbollah

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 8:25 AM PST

The Onion did not come up with this one. From Haaretz:

In addition to infantry, armor and intelligence units, the Israel Defense Forces has also deployed eight Eland antelope to further secure Israel's tense northern border against Hezbollah.
The antelope have been stationed in the zone between the security fence and the international border to clear problematic foliage that distorts views of the Lebanese side and within which Hezbollah guerillas could hide.
The animals, each weighing in at over 500 kilograms, are known for their sharp incisors and fondness for eating vegetation. Hailing from eastern Africa, the animals were first brought to Israel more than 30 years ago as part of a project to raise them at local zoos before sending them to Europe.
Israel's defense establishment has apparently caught onto the beasts' impressive ability to quickly chew through large quantities, as well as the low cost of looking after them and their environmental-friendliness.

Banks Are Using Your Money to Lobby for More Money

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 8:00 AM PST

Via the Sunlight Foundation blog, an excellent suggestion from Robert Reich:

...what's happened to the Wall Street campaign contributions and to [Wall Street's] lobbyists? They're still going strong. We now know that many of the financial giants that have been bailed out by taxpayers continue to finance a platoon of Washington lobbyists, who are at this moment trying to influence TARP II and the next attempt to regulate Wall Street....
Would it not be a reasonable condition for receiving additional bailout funds — from TARP II — that a firm cease its lobbying activities and campaign contributions (as well as any contributions it makes indirectly through its executives) at least until it fully compensates taxpayers what we have provided it?

Paul Blumenthal of Sunlight puts it this way: "Essentially, we have taxpayer money cycling from the our wallets, to the government, to a bank, and then to a lobbyist, who then works to get more money for the bank." He suggests supporting S. 133, a bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe that addresses Reich's suggestion.

My $0.02: I suspect if Wall Street firms couldn't use TARP funds to lobby lawmakers, we would have seen effective limitations on executive pay added to the bailout a long, long time ago.

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Culture War Dead-Enders

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 7:43 AM PST

Talk about beating a dead horse. Here's the conservative National Review, via Damon Linker:

From these announcements we learn that President Obama recognizes no difference between the Jewish-Christian covenant between a woman and a man (a covenant that they will have and nurture children, if they are so blessed), and a civil contract between two persons of any sex, in order to set up a household of affection and sexual favors.
This is a relapse into paganism.

And here's the conservative Weekly Standard, via Andrew Sullivan:

"Look out for organic broccoli farm and arugula awareness earmarks in the stimulus."

Hey folks? Sarah Palin lost, remember? The divide-and-conquer, liberals-are-all-elitists-from-fake-America bullshit went down in flames. The guy who insisted that we can work together to make the country better won decisively and now has an approval rating hovering around 80 percent. Feel free to keep banging that old, threadbare drum. 'Cause no one's listening.

MoJo on MSNBC: The Barracuda vs. The Whales (Video)

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 7:39 PM PST

This evening I was a guest on David Shuster's show on MSNBC, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where we discussed Governor Sarah Palin's plans to sue the federal government to reverse the endangered species listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale. This, I might add, was the second time in as many weeks that a MoJo staffer was featured on Shuster's "Muckraker of the Day" segment. Last week, the honor went to David Corn, who chatted with Shuster about Obama's first-day transparency and accountability moves, as well as the Obama administration's new web site.

Check out tonight's segment:

And the Award for the Biggest Cold-Hearted Bastard in America Goes To...

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 3:47 PM PST

Bay City (Michigan) Electric Light & Power manager Robert Belleman. Upon learning that 93-year-old Marvin Schur froze to death—"a slow, painful death" according to the medical examiner—in his home, Belleman defended the utility's decision to cut off the man's power, without warning, during last week's subzero cold snap. Installing "limiters" which put a cap on power usage and shuts off the juice altogether if an owner exceeds the limit, is company policy, noted Belleman, and he saw no reason to change it in the light of Schur's death. As for the utility's failure to inform Schur?

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."

Schur, who was $1,000 behind on his utility bill, was indeed found by his neighbor—four days after the limiter was switched on, in a sub-freezing room that had icicles on the insides of its windows.

Update: Wow, this is worse than I thought. Bay City Electric Light & Power is a community-owned utility (one of the nation's 2,000 such utilities). And Robert Belleman is not just the manager of the utility, he's the manager of Bay City itself. So I guess when he meant that citizens had a duty to report that their neighbors were freezing to death due to the reckless disregard of utilities to the proper government officials, he meant himself! Thanks to commentor wikibrain for bringing this to my attention.

Obama Administration Can't Get White House Emails Working

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 1:27 PM PST

The Bush administration came under fire for losing its emails. Almost a week into his presidency, Barack Obama's administration can't get its email addresses to work at all. Emails to Obama's top press officials bounced back Monday, and Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, told Mother Jones that he could give reporters his email address, but "it wouldn't do any good," since the White House email system isn't working. What about those Gmail addresses the Obama press team set up last week to handle press requests while the system was being set up? Those won't work, either, says Shapiro, because you can't access Gmail from White House computers. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs promised during Monday's press briefing that he would "endeavor to fix the email system," but gave no time frame for that to happen. (Update: It's fixed as of Tuesday morning.)

While the lack of functioning email addresses is surely frustrating for the new denizens of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, email has been far from the new administration's only tech problem. In a post on the White House blog, an administration official (probably Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the Obama White House) tacitly acknowledged that the much-touted new WhiteHouse.gov website had experienced problems, too: