Mojo - June 2009

5 Troubling SCOTUS Rulings

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 4:42 PM PDT

The Supreme Court finished its 2008 term on Monday with a flurry of decisions that continue to highlight the Court's rigid ideological rift. Below, five rulings that could have a lasting negative impact on prisoners rights, the environment, and employee discrimination practices:

The Upshot: In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that Javaid Iqbal, one of the hundreds of Muslims rounded up after 9/11 and allegedly subjected to harsh treatment, could not challenge his detention in Court because he could not prove he was mistreated. In effect, the ruling increased the pleading requirements for prisoners, which could make it more difficult for prisoners to bring civil rights complaints to court.

See no evil: In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that a prison supervisor is not required to challenge discriminatory practices based on the "mere knowledge of his subordinate's discriminatory" actions.

The Upshot: In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that death row inmate William Osborne could not challenge his conviction with DNA technology invented after he was jailed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he was disappointed that the "narrow Supreme Court ruling denied access to post-conviction DNA testing for a defendant who wanted to prove his innocence."

Prove no evil: In his dissent, Justice Stevens criticized Roberts' ruling: "for reasons the State has been unable or unwilling to articulate, it refuses to allow Osborne to test the evidence at his own expense and to thereby ascertain the truth once and for all."

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Lobbyists Get $1.5 Million For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 1:08 PM PDT

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen pretty much single-handedly ruined Kazakhstan's international image with his movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In an early sequence the title character takes the viewer around his home village of Kuzcek and in short order smooches his sister ("Number 4 prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan!"), introduces his "retard" brother Bilo, who lives in a cage, drinks horse urine, and cheerfully points out the "town rapist," Urkin. After departing the village in a car drawn by a horse, Borat travels to the United States, where, among other things, he serenades drinkers in an Arizona bar with a song titled "In My Country, We Have Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well!)" He also displays truly atrocious taste in swimwear.

Now, the government of Kazakhstan has signed on with Washington lobbying outfit Policy Impact Communications to, among other things, counter the "unsophisticated" image created by the Borat movie, the firm's CEO told The Hill. (The dozen lobbyists on the Kazakhstan account will also try to get the country into the World Trade Organization, cozy up to think tanks, reach out to bloggers and place positive op-eds in "prestige media.")

Maybe Austria should be beefing up its DC presence too?

Taliban Consolidating Its Grip on Afghanistan?

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:48 PM PDT

The Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan has so far been concentrated in the south and east of the country, but according to a new report, they could emerge as a national insurgency within two years. Gilles Dorronsoro, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that the Taliban's rapid expansion is the result of its own operational strengths, both in terms of strong leadership and effective propaganda, combined with the West's continued underestimation of its powers. With increasing numbers of US troops bound for Afghanistan, Dorronsoro recommends that they be posted to areas in which the Taliban have yet to concentrate in order to prevent these regions from falling victim to insurgents. "If the Coalition reinforced the Afghan police and military in the North," he says, "the insurgents could be stopped relatively easily."

From a press release describing Dorronsoro's report:

Don't Call Him Senator Franken

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 11:51 AM PDT

The Minnesota Supreme Court just unanimously confirmed Al Franken's win in November's election. He'll likely be the new Senator from Minnesota very soon, but you can call him Al:

RIP: Goldman Partners' Interest in Public Service

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 10:25 AM PDT

Felix Salmon got an email from a Goldman Sachs spokesman responding to Matt Taibbi's lambasting of the company in Rolling Stone. (Taibbi called Goldman "the planet-eating Death Star of political influence" and accused it of engineering "every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.") After calling Taibbi's piece "hysterical," the spokesman, Lucas Van Praag, told Salmon the sad news that "in the wake of the events of the past year or two, Goldman’s partners have pretty much lost their appetite for going into public service." The horror, the horror! Whatever will we do without their enlightened leadership?

Reminder: We Tortured People to Death

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 9:52 AM PDT

If you've been paying attention, you probably already know that the over 100 deaths of detainees during interrogations include dozens of people who were, in effect, tortured to death. If that surprises you, you should go read Glenn Greenwald. Actually, you should do it anyway.

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"A Dark Year" For Democracy in Russia, Report Concludes

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 9:21 AM PDT

Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide, released its "Nations In Transit" report Tuesday, an annual assessment of Eastern European and former Soviet states' transition to democracy. The report, first released in 1995, has always been something of a downer. And this year's incarnation is on exception. Two thirds (18 of 29) nations evaluated were found to be backsliding from democratic reform.

"2008 was a dark year for democracy in the region, in particular in the former Soviet states," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, who oversaw the report. "With economic conditions worsening, the region is likely to see authoritarians resort to greater repression, rather than adopt needed reforms." Indeed, for the first time, Russia was determined to be "a consolidated authoritarian regime," due to its persistent problems with corruption, press censorship, and rigged courts, not to mention last year's highly suspect presidential election in which Putin acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, came out on top. Similar authoritarian trends also appeared in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 30, 2009

Tue Jun. 30, 2009 7:39 AM PDT

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Casey (center), commander of 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, sits with Lt. Col. Hassan (front), commander of 2nd Battalion, 12th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division, during the turnover ceremony of Multi-National Force - Iraq, Combat Outpost Power in the Aden District of Mosul, Iraq, June 7. Tuesday was the official deadline for US troops to leave Iraqi cities. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Obama's "Nonks" Gone Wild

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 6:48 AM PDT

Vivek Kundra is a rock star.

At least at the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference. On Tuesday morning, Kundra, the chief information officer of the Obama administration, opened the second day of this gathering of digital techies by unveiling a new dashboard that taxpayers can use to track the federal government's spending on information technology. The crowd went wild. They greeted his announcement with a standing ovation.

You can go to Data.gov to see this new tool, which will allow you to obtain and mash data about IT programs across the federal government. For example, as Kundra said, you could check out "how much the US Department of Agriculture spends on information technology projects and what is the health of those projects." You can see who's getting the IT contracts, assess the performance of those contracts, and provide feedback to the CIOs of these agencies.

Not your idea of a hot time? Okay. But as Kundra pointed out, the US government spends about $70 billion a year on IT, and much of this money gets wasted on lousy IT. He noted that a 1994 report found that billions of dollars in federal IT investments went down the drain. And he referred to a 2008 report that concluded that $30 billion in IT programs were in trouble. That report, Kundra griped, didn't even provide a list of the specific IT programs in jeopardy. And, he said, big federal IT programs often take 18 months to two years to get off the launching pad, but by then the technology has changed and outpaced the project's original specs. Remember those FBI computers?

So getting IT right in the federal government is a big deal. By putting all this data on line, Kundra is inviting outside-the-government experts to vet what is happening within the government. He's also applying principles of accountability and transparency to this uber-wonky aspect of governance. Kundra also noted that CIOs in federal agencies have been ordered to inspect every single IT investment. And when he declared that the IT dashboard has been released in beta form--signaling that the government would seek input from users on how to improve it--the PDF audience exploded in applause.

Kundra was introduced to the conference by Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Newmark said he was enthusiastic about Washington these days, noting that the government was now in the hands of nerds, wonks, and hybrids he calls "nonks" Kundra may be the top nonk of the administration. When Kundra said, "This is a new approach to advancing technology in government," the hundreds of nonks in the room smiled and nodded approvingly. If this jazzes them so much, non-nonks should be heartened.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com. You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Congress's $1.2 Million a Day Drug Habit—and Pharma's Phony "Gift" to Health Care Reform

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 12:49 AM PDT

Big Pharma pulled off a first-class PR coup last week with its widely celebrated pledge to support health care reform by offering up a package of discounts they claim will run to $80 billion over the next ten years. The highlight of the package, said to be worth about $30 billion, is a 50 percent discount offered to old and disabled people who fall into the "donut hole," the notorious coverage gap in the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which leaves some of us paying as much as $3,000 out of pocket for our meds.

Announcing the agreement, President Obama hailed the drug-makers for offering "significant relief" to a "continuing injustice that has placed a great burden on many seniors," and for helping to reach "a turning point in America's journey toward health care reform." AARP, the mammoth old people's lobby, was right there at Obama's shoulder, with head man Barry Rand trumpeting that industry's progress: "This is an early win for reform and a major step forward. It is a signal the process is working and will work." The deal was also seen as a victory for Senate finance committee chair Max Baucus (D-MT), who engineered negotiations in his self-assigned role as champion compromiser in the reform debate. But the real triumph belongs to the drug companies themselves, since the supposedly magnanimous offer is just what we might expect it to be, considering the source: another wolf in sheep's clothing from Big Pharma.

When it comes to securing their interests against even the flimsiest of threats, the drug-makers' pockets appear bottomless. A look at last week's Center for Responsive Politics report on the industry offers an awe-inspiring view of the druggies in action: To begin with, we're not talking about a handful of lobbyists twisting the arms of members of Congress. Pharma had 1,814 flacks at work last year and 1,309 in the first 3 months of this year. That's 12 percent of all the lobbyists in Washington. Last year alone the drug industry spent $234 million on lobbying. In the first three months of this year, it spent more than $66.5 million—$1.2 million a day. And that doesn't include polling, advertising, and research. Among the top recipients of Pharma funds are several members of the Senate finance committee, including Baucus himself, who have positioned themselves as a "coalition of the willing" dedicated to promoting a bipartisan middle ground on health care reform—in other words, minor changes that won't seriously affect private sector profits.