Mojo - January 2009

Army: Be All You Can Fudge

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:11 PM EST

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A few days ago, the New York Times reported that, thanks to the worsening economy, military recruiters are having better luck luring new recruits with promises of benefits, bonuses, and job training. According to the Times, the Army exceeded its recruitment goals in October, November, and December of last year.

But before we declare the Army's recruiting crisis over, it's worth taking a closer look at the numbers. A study released today by the National Priorities Project (NPP) finds that the Department of Defense is indeed meeting its recruitment requirements, but only by quietly lowering both its recruitment goals and the requirements for joining the military.

The Army, caught in two intractable wars, has had difficulty filling its ranks in recent years, placing added stress on those already in uniform. The Pentagon plans to expand the Army by 65,000 over the next several years to alleviate the strain. In doing so, however, it's been forced to compromise on standards, which according to the NPP, will have adverse affects down the road as the overall quality of the US military declines.

The Pentagon judges a "high quality" recruit based on a combination of educational achievement and score on the military's mandatory Armed Forces Qualification Exam (AFQT). Both have been manipulated, claims the NPP, to show improvement where little or none has been made. Take education levels. Before the war in Iraq, new recruits typically had at least a high school diploma. This is no longer the case, and the percentage of those with high school educations has fallen four years in a row. The Pentagon claimed far more high school-educated recruits last October than it actually had, thanks to a gentle twisting of definition; the Army's numbers included all new recruiting "contracts." But as NPP points out, contracts often fall through, and a far better measure is the number of "accessions," or those who actually enlist.

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Does an Obama DOD Appointee Fail the New Revolving Door Standards?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 11:58 AM EST

william_lynn.png It looks like William J. Lynn III will be the first challenge to Obama's tough new restrictions on the revolving door culture in Washington.

As part of the executive orders President Obama issued Wednesday, all appointees in the Obama Administration will be forced to sign a pledge including the following language:

I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts....

Separation of Powers: All Eyes Are on Obama, But It's Congress That Needs to Seize the Day

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:57 AM EST

Now that the euphoria of the election and inauguration are over, we will soon be reminded of the messy realities that come with having three branches of government. As much as the nation is pinning its desperate hopes on Obama, the new president's success or failure at advancing new policies and changing the way government works depends first and foremost on Congress.

The burning questions of the moment have to do with money--how much to spend, and when, and for what. The president will present his stimulus package to Congess, but it is just a recommendation: All spending measures must originate in the House through the Ways and Means Committee. While they receive none of the attention given to cabinet members, the leaders of this powerful committee are no less important than the secretary of the Treasury, or the other members of the administration who must go to it pleading for funds.

Right now Ways and Means is chaired by New York's Charles Rangel, still a formidable figure despite a growing collection of ethics scandals. In the front tier are Pete Stark of California, Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, and John Lewis of Georgia. It's a solidly liberal lineup (most are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) that is likely to support big public works and jobs programs as well as improvements to the social safety net for the poor and the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly.

On the other side is the group of conservative Democrats in the House that calls itself the Blue Dogs. Their numbers and influence have increased in the last two elections, and they have already made it clear that in exchange for gritting their teeth and accepting a big stimulus package funded through Keynesian deficit spending, they'll be looking for concessions over the long term in other areas, including old-age entitlements. With 51 members, the Blue Dogs could monkey-wrench some of Obama's plans if they choose to vote with Republicans.

We learned just how far an uncooperative Congress can go to undermine a president back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution emerged from the back benches and dedicated itself to opposing (and eventually impeaching) Bill Clinton. But it's been such a long time since we've had a strong, popular Democratic president along with a solid Democratic majority in Congress, it's hard to envision what it might be like.

Those of us old enough to remember them might harken back to the LBJ years. On the day of Obama's inauguration, Saul Friedman, the longtime reporter for major dailies and now a columnist, recalled that time, and the vital part played by a strong, committed Congress.

The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press....They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.

MSNBC Video: Corn IDs the Money Quote of Obama's First Day: "Openness Prevails"

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 11:14 PM EST

On Wednesday night, MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue featured the recent Mother Jones piece on changes at the White House website. In the segment, I discussed President Barack Obama's first-day moves to make his administration more transparent and accountable, and I identified the money quote of the day, which was contained in a memo the president issued: "In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Because I've written about such matters, MSNBC's David Shuster awarded me the highly coveted "Muckraker of the Day" award. Or is it more like a designation? No cash comes with it, but I was honored to be chosen on such a historic day.

You can follow my postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

Obama Reshapes the War on Terror With First Day Moves

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 6:52 PM EST

guantanamo-prisoners-250x200.jpg President Barack Obama began his first full day in office with a blockbuster move, ordering that military commissions currently ongoing at Guantanamo Bay be halted for 120 days. It is a dramatic first step toward reshaping the war on terror, and one that is being hailed by human rights groups that have spent recent years fighting the Bush Administration's detention and interrogation policies. "This is a giant step forward," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, told me. "Had [Obama] not acted today, there was a chance of irretrievable harm occurring at Guantanamo and we would have lost the game before the Obama team hit the field."

Romero and multiple lawyers for Guantanamo detainees said in interviews Wednesday that though they applaud the 120-day moratorium on the military commissions, they are skeptical of the one-year deadline for closing Gitmo that the Obama administration is reportedly considering. "Closing Guantanamo Bay is not difficult" says Wells Dixon, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It can be done in three months."

"We want to see what comes out," says Romero, noting that his organization seeks "a real plan that is more substantial than just a year, more than generalities."

Obama to Bush: I Can Release Your Records. Don't Like It? Sue.

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 5:05 PM EST

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On his first day in office, President Obama put former president Bush on notice. His administration just released an executive order that will make it difficult for Bush to shield his White House records--and those of former Vice President Dick Cheney--from public scrutiny by invoking the doctrine of executive privilege. Shortly after taking office, Bush handed down his own executive order, amending the Presidential Records Act to give current and past presidents, along with their heirs, veto power over the release of presidential records, which are considered the property of the American people.

"[Obama]'s putting former presidents on notice that if you want to continue a claim of executive privilege that [Obama] doesn't think is well-placed, you're going to have to go to court," says Anne Weismann, the chief counsel for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW).

During the campaign, Obama promised to "nullify attempts to make the timely release of presidential records more difficult." (A transition spokesperson promised Mother Jones essentially the same thing when we asked a few weeks ago.) That was a reference to former president Bush's infamous Executive Order 13233, which gave current and former presidents and vice presidents, along with their heirs, unprecedented authority to block the disclosure of White House records. But Obama's taken his campaign promise a step further. While revoking 13233, Obama has also put forth a far stricter interpretation of executive privilege:

[T]he Executive Order on Presidential Records brings those principles [of openness and transparency] to presidential records by giving the American people greater access to these historic documents. This order ends the practice of having others besides the President assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the President will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the Attorney General and the White House Counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution.

Weismann explains:

[Obama]'s basically saying if there's a dispute, and a former president thinks something should be covered by executive privilege and Obama doesn't agree, then Obama would direct the Archivist to release it [despite the former president's claim of privilege]. The only option a former President would have at that point would be to go to court and sue. [Obama]'s set up a process to review these claims which requires the Attorney General and White House Counsel to agree that these claims should be invoked, which indicates that it won't be either casually invoked or casually defended.

In Obama's remarks on Wednesday morning, he said that, "Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution." The effect of that particular phrase is enormous, as emphasized by the response of a reader over at Talking Points Memo who works for the Justice Department. "That highlighted phrase has signaled a significant discussion around these parts." You can be certain that Obama's early moves to promote government transparency and accountability will be the subject of discussion and debate for a long time to come.

Photo by flickr user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.

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The Super Bowl is Recession Proof

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 3:17 PM EST

In Steelers Nation, anyway.

Steelers Nation isn't about to let a recession ruin a chance at witnessing a possible record sixth Super Bowl victory.
By mid-day yesterday, less than 24 hours after the Steelers vanquished the Ravens in the AFC championship game, fans had snatched up all 50 three-day Super Bowl packages, at $4,895 a person, being offered by AAA East Central.
The trips sold out about as rapidly as they did in 2006, the last time the Steelers made the Super Bowl. But that time it involved a less expensive motor coach trip to Detroit, not a plane ride to Tampa, Fla.
"This probably parallels the type of response we had in previous years, which is a pleasant surprise given the economic circumstances," said Jim Lehman, AAA East Central senior vice president....
The Travel Authority, an Indiana-based agency teaming with the Steelers to offer trips to the Super Bowl, had 75 orders by noon yesterday for its highest-priced three-day package deal, starting at $1,725 per person, based on double occupancy. The package includes hotel accommodations, air fare, a welcome reception and tailgate party, but no game tickets.

Add to the price of these packages the price of tickets, which are currently going on stubhub.com for $1,800 each. All of those tickets will sell, believe me, despite the fact that a family of four might pay over $10,000 for the whole experience.

Oh, and by the way. Here we go, Steelers. Here. We. Go!

So Long, Revolving Door

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 2:17 PM EST

President Obama just signed executive orders prohibiting any of his current and future administration officials from leaving office and then turning around to lobby the administration on the issues of his or her expertise. This ban is in place not for two years, not for four years. It is in place for the full length of Obama's term in the White House. In a statement, Fred Wertheimer, president of good government advocacy group Democracy 21, called the move "the toughest and most far reaching revolving door provisions ever adopted." (For the full slate of new ethics rules, click here. For Wertheimer's full statement, which is almost gleeful, click here.)

Asked for comment, John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation said that while he's waiting to see the details, "today's announcement is a significant shift in the executive branch's stance toward being held accountable to the public it serves." He called the move "very encouraging."

And it's not just encouraging for open government reasons. It's also smart politically. If you create a culture where industry shills can't run or work in Interior, the FDA, the EPA, and other federal agencies, you're left with a pool of civic-minded people who care about reform, regulation, and the environment to choose from when making appointments. It will be tough, one would assume, for a Republican president to change that culture in eight years. I think it makes the bureaucracy, on balance, less corporate and more progressive.

President Bush didn't just let former lobbyists work in his administration. He let them run entire departments. And he let current lobbyists make policy. That era is over. Decisively.

No Buyer Yet For Saddam Hussein's Bond Villain Yacht

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 2:00 PM EST

A few weeks ago, I posted the story of a life-size replica of the White House in Atlanta that had gone into foreclosure—evidence, perhaps, of the recession reaching the upper rungs of the economic ladder (or of a sudden and unexpected outbreak of good taste among the monied elite.) In that vein, today I offer this story about how Saddam Hussein's custom-built, Bond-villain yacht has gone without a buyer for months and is now being returned to Iraq for storage.

The 270-foot "Basrah Breeze" (also known as the "Ocean Breeze" and "Qadissiyet Saddam") is decorated in the garish style of the deceased Iraqi dictator, complete with mahogany trim, gold bathroom fixtures, and plush carpets. And in case you happen to be a fugitive from Interpol or involved in a blood feud with an American president, the vessel also features a missile launcher and a secret escape hatch leading to a mini-submarine. Everything an aspiring Dr. Evil might require and all for the bargain price of $30 million. For all these amenities, Saddam himself never overnighted in his yacht, fearing a political uprising if he were to take to the seas even for a few hours.

The Iraqi government won the yacht from a Jordanian company in a court case last year and is apparently surprised (and not a little disappointed) that a buyer has not yet been found. The decision to bring the Basrah Breeze back to its home port in the Persian Gulf from its current home in the Greek port of Piraeus will save "docking and crew costs," said an Iraqi government spokesman, who went on to say that it has proven difficult to sell the yacht "in the current circumstances with the world dealing with the financial crisis."

If the Flubbed Presidential Oath Interests You...

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 12:06 PM EST

You'll find the breakdown and video over at Language Log.

Update: Also interesting, front pages from around the nation and world.