Mojo - February 2009

The FEC Brings Down the Hammer (Belatedly)

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 9:40 AM PST
I was encouraged to see this, kind of:
...the Federal Election Commission has closed the books on 17 more campaign finance investigations... Among those fined were Sen. Mel Martinez and former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.
Martinez, R-Fla., was fined $99,000 for exceeding contribution limits in his 2004 campaign by some $313,000, and for not properly filing required forms.
Gephardt, D-Mo., was fined $42,000 for accepting $211,000 in donations beyond the limit in his 2004 presidential bid and for spending $163,000 more on the Iowa caucuses than allowed.

These fines are hefty, and I'm happy to see the FEC extract them. But this highlights a major shortcoming in the way the FEC does business -- fining politicians five years after they violate elections law does not provide them with a serious disincentive for doing it again. If you're a special interest group and you desperately want to see a proposition defeated or a candidate booted from office, you are far more likely to circumvent the law in order to do so if you know you can tie the FEC up in legal knots for years and only pay a fine way down the road.

And let's say you do get hit with a serious fine five years on. Half a decade's worth of beneficial policy that you got by cheating the electoral system is almost certainly worth a couple hundred thousand bucks, right? For more on how/why the FEC doesn't work like it should, see here and here.

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Pentagon Worried About Spending Cuts

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 8:54 AM PST
As the economy collapses around our heads, the federal government is preparing financial bailout packages totaling an estimated $2 trillion--and that, perhaps, just to start. There's a lot of money going out the door, but one potential loser could be the Pentagon, reports UPI. A notoriously profligate spender (read this), the Defense Department, according to the Congressional Budget Office, accounts for more than half of all federal discretionary spending and about 4.5 percent of GDP. And despite what you may think, the Pentagon's budget has not declined since the end of the Cold War; it's now 20 percent greater, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1985 when President Reagan was spending the Soviets into the ground.

In short, the Pentagon is flush with cash, but could the glory days of almost limitless spending be winding down? Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to think so. "The spigot of defense spending that opened on Sept. 11 is closing," he said at a Senate hearing last month. But the reality of a leaner fiscal climate comes at a bad time for the military services, which are straining to maintain readiness while fighting a two-front war. There's equipment to refurbish or replace, soaring personnel costs, and next-generation weapons to develop.

Wall Street CEOs: Putting Shareholders Before Taxpayers

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 2:07 PM PST

During Wednesday's hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit offered a curious mea culpa in response to criticism triggered by his firm's plan to buy a new corporate jet after receiving $45 billion in bailout money:

We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world, and I take personal responsibility for that mistake. In the end, I canceled delivery. We need to do a better job of acknowledging and embracing the new realities.

Bailout Question: Is This the Time for Mass Movements or Expert Opinion?

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 1:45 PM PST

Nate Silver takes one side:

I'm sorry, but somewhere between 99.9% and 99.999999% of us are severely underqualified to be making policy recommendations on [the financial industry bailout]. And I'm certainly in the majority on this one... This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements -- this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I'm not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven't yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them -- do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field.

And David Sirota takes the other:

The big flaw in [Silver's] rationale, of course, is the entire concept of "expert opinion." What exactly is "expert opinion?" That term usually refers to the Very Serious People the Establishment and Media Say Are Experts - that is, people like the Wall Street CEOs in front of Congress and people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner - all who had direct hands in destroying the economy. Silver - incredibly - would have us simply wait for this "expert opinion" to tell us what to do, without any regard for the fact that this "expert opinion" is exactly what got us into the situation we're in.

I think both Silver and Sirota are right, and wrong.

The Small But Meaningful Victories of the Open Gov't World

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 12:06 PM PST

I know what you're looking for on your lunch break: an update on Senate disclosure parity! The Sunlight Foundation reports that Sen. Russ Feingold's years-long, seemingly quixotic quest to cajole the Senate into filing campaign fundraising reports the same way as the House -- electronically and directly to the FEC -- may soon come to fruition. Feingold is expected to re-introduce S.223 in the next few weeks and enlarged Democratic majorities mean the greatest chance for passage yet. See Sunlight for more.

Have You Ever Heard of Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH)?

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 11:20 AM PST

Unless you have some sort of "giant idiot" section of your RSS reader, you probably haven't. Here's his attempt to deliver a Republican talking point:

"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression," Austria said. "He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history."

Actually, that's just wrong. If Austria is auditioning for "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader," I have some advice for him. You're going to lose, chief. Any grade school kid knows that the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression occurred in 1929. The unfairly maligned Roosevelt took office in 1933.

My prediction? In 2060, Republicans will blame Barack Obama for overseeing the collapse of the American financial industry in the fall of 2008.

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(Slight) Good News in the Israeli Elections: Obama Might Be Forced To Intervene

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 10:09 AM PST

When the chief political correspondent of Ha'aretz says that the Israeli elections have produced a "big mess," you know there's trouble. And that's how Akiva Eldar put it during an interview conducted shortly after exit polls indicated that Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party won 28 Knesset seats to the 26 won by Likud, led by hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu. (Likud ended up winning 27 seats.) You can hear the interview here.

Eldar said he was "confused" by the results, which place tipping-point power in the hands of ultra-hardliner Avigdor Lieberman's radical right/rabid nationalist party, Yisrael Belteinu, which won 15 seats. (Labor finished fourth with 13 seats.) But Eldar did note that these results had a slightly positive element, given that Netanyahu and Likud had been predicted to place first: "The good news is that Tzipi Livni [who supports negotiating toward a two-state solution]...ended up with a couple of more Knesset seats than Netanyahu. That's a big surprise." But it seems unlikely she will be able to form a government. One possible--probable?--outcome is a government dominated by Netanyahu, who will owe plenty to Lieberman and his fanatics. "The next government," Eldar noted, "will have to include the...radical right party [and] that will paralyze it." Translation: there will be no peace process.

But Eldar saw another small--make that, very small--bit of good news in that.

Dobson's Focus on the Family Out-Hates the Mormons

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 9:16 AM PST

Guess who is just as bad (and possibly worse) than intolerant, fundamentalist Mormons? Intolerant, fundamentalist Christians. The Colorado Independent has the story:

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family gave $727,250 in cash and services to the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 campaign in California, according to records released by the California secretary of state, including a $100,000 check in late October, just days before the evangelical media empire announced it planned to lay off nearly 20 percent of its employees.

While there has been public scrutiny of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its attempts to influence the campaign to reverse a California Supreme Court ruling allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, Focus on the Family and related donors pumped more than six times as much as the Mormon church did into the ProtectMarriage.com campaign, records show.

In sum, the Independent reports, Focus on the Family and its sister groups gave a stunning $1.25 million to the Yes on 8 movement, including $50,000 in seed money a year before the election. It is worth noting that the largest benefactor supporting Proposition 8 was not Focus on the Family. It was the Knights of Columbus, the Connecticut-based political arm of the Catholic Church.

For more on where the Christian Right is taking the country, see our cover package "God and Country."

Livni or Netanyahu? Israeli Prime Minister TBD by Radical Lieberman (Not That One)

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 2:28 AM PST
After Israel's  tight election for prime minister Kadima Party moderate Tzipi Livni is now just ahead of right-wing Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu (with 28 vs. 27 seats in the Knesset). But the real power sits with rising radical Avigdor Liebermanan ultra-conservative who wants to establish a blanket denial of all Arabs for citizenshipwho can throw his support to either to determine who becomes prime minister. (He said he's open to talking with both but will no doubt side with fellow hard-liner Netanyahu.)


This is not good news.

The Six Worst Tax Cuts in the Senate's Stimulus

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 4:00 PM PST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 4:00 PM PST

After a week of debate and a round of stumping from President Obama, the Senate passed its version of the economic stimulus package on Tuesday afternoon.

The bill outlines $840 billion in spending and tax relief, and just after the votes were tallied, Citizens for Tax Justice released its list (PDF) of the six worst tax cuts—costing $123 billion more than the House bill—in the Senate's stimulus: