Obama's Veto Logic

Last week Obama got Congress to give up the F-22 by threatening to veto the defense budget bill. This week, he's pushing for even more cuts. He's threatened to nix the bill if it contains money for the presidential helicopter—a program Gates tried to cancel but which the House revived—or a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet.

This is an encouraging but puzzling move. In dealing with Congress, Obama has employed a distinctive strategy, especially as witnessed in the cap and trade and health care debates. In both cases, Obama has been prepared to keep all options on the table and let Congress take the lead in writing legislation. Predictably, this has resulted in some very disappointing bills. So what's the difference here? If he can play hardball with John Murtha, why not with Max Baucus?

Sgt. 1st Class Lance Amsden, platoon sergeant for the 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, watches as CH-47 Chinook helicopters circle above during a dust storm at Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan, July 17, during preparation for an air assault mission. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

What does our energy policy have to say about our values? Everything, and a case currently before the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) shows why.

The story actually begins in the state legislature with a low profile bill to allow school districts to finance utility costs (water, gas, electric) if the project will save them money. Who could object to that, right?

In fact, nearly no one did.

The bill sailed through the AZ House without a single vote against it and was signed into law by Republican Governor Jan Brewer with no fanfare.

Enter two local high schools, wanting to use to the new law to sign an agreement with a solar panel installation & leasing company. The arrangement (called a solar service agreement, or SSA) would allow SolarCity to place panels of the schools' roofs, and sell the electricty to the district at a set price guaranteed to save the cash-strapped schools some serious money. (An estimated $4.7 million over 15 years.)

The new law allows districts to do exactly that, so, what's stopping them? Technically, nothing. The schools can sign on the dotted line. It's just that SolarCity isn't allowed to present the schools with any dotted lines.

Welcome to the barricades of the "energy revolution."

Here's the basic question: is SolarCity a public utility?

Think of a utility and what probably comes to mind is a mental image of giant power plants (coal, natural gas, nuclear) producing and selling a gazillion watts of electricity through the grid to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of customers.

SolarCity’s new business model doesn’t look anything like that. There's no giant power plant. Only one customer per contract: the school district. But there would be electrical generation taking place on those school roofs, and that's the rub. Some, including existing utilities, maintain that the act of turning the suns rays into electricity makes the setup a public utility which must be regulated by the ACC.

ACC chair and renewable energy advocate Kris Mayes recently called SolarCity's request “perhaps the most complicated case, and one of the most significant cases, in the history of Arizona.”

SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass told me that the new law “should make it easier for schools to enter solar service agreements and help establish reporting requirements." But, he went on, "without the ACC case being approved, it won’t help much, as solar providers will not be able to offer SSAs.”

And the non-profit group, Vote Solar Initiative, recently provided this take on the ACC case:

In California … most commercial-sized systems are installed under this model. Instead of a customer buying a solar system outright, the customer instead provides access to the roof for a solar company to install and operate a system, and the customer simply buys the electricity on a kWh basis. A big benefit is that there are no upfront costs. And for non-taxpaying entities like schools and government buildings, this is the only way they can leverage the 30% federal investment tax credit. Without this mechanism, any town/school/water district that wants to go solar has to leave serious money on the table. [My emphasis]

But this case has significance beyond Arizona’s borders and will affect far more than just schools. At issue before the ACC are the rules that will determine what kind of energy system our nation will have in the coming decades.

Will it be sustainable or will it remain focused on short term profits? Will it be efficient and flexible enough to allow small-scale clean and renewable sources into the game, or wasteful and protective of business, as usual? Will our energy policy help keep America safe, or will it increase threats to our national security? Will it foster democracy or centralize authority? Will it push us to support foreign dictators, eroding our moral authority in the world and making us vulnerable to the enemies of our “friends?”

The truth is that energy policy is not primarily about energy. Energy — how we get it and how we use it — is, above all, about our values. The new energy system we’re building (through cases like the one before the ACC) will tell us, and the world, who we are as a people. In this energy and environmental crisis, we've been given an opportunity to reaffirm our best American values. We mustn't let it slip away.

 Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy and the environment for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. He edited The Climate Bill: A Field Guide. For more of his stories, click here.

On Wednsday, I reported that the National Archives is considering using a CSI-ish procedure that could produce clues as to what was said during the infamous 18 and 1/2 minutes missing on one of Nixon's Watergate tapes. The story got much attention, and several Watergate historians--who often don't agree on anything--told me they each are hoping that the testing yields something.

The procedure, which is rather straightforward and can be done relatively quickly, would try to determine if there are tell-tale indented impressions on one of the two pages of Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman's notes from this meeting--impressions that might have come from possibly missing notes that correspond to the 18 and 1/2 minute gap.

Today, I received an image of that particular page.

Does it literally hold the key to solving this Watergate mystery?

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Marines from India Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, take a break during a hike on a Middle Eastern military base June 29, 2009. The 22nd MEU conducted a theater security cooperation exercise with a regional military to enhance interoperability and tactical proficiency between forces. The 22nd MEU is currently serving as the theater reserve force for U.S. Central Command. (Official Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David Castillo)

Barack Obama's former doctor thinks Barack Obama is wrong about health care. David Scheiner, M.D., thinks Obama and Congress should be pursuing a government-run single-payer system. That's probably because such systems are cheaper and produce better health outcomes than our current system. But nevermind that. Scheiner and the advocacy organizations Physicians for a National Health Program, Healthcare-NOW, and Public Citizen are holding a press conference and rally for single-payer in Washington on Thursday. Needless to say, it won't go anywhere. The president actually said in the past that he supported single-payer, but that's gone out the window due to the vagaries of a political system that gives Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley, and other small-state senators who have taken large amounts of money from the health care industry enormous amounts of power over health care reform.

If Dr. Scheiner really wants single-payer, he should support political reform—including publicly-funded elections, for example—first. He should also read that Hendrik Hertzberg article I mentioned earlier.

Today's New York Times includes a photograph that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the health care fight going on in the Senate Finance committee. It's here. As Ezra Klein explains, you should be thinking about who is not in the photo.

The latest news on the health care front is that the version of the bill the Senate Finance committee is working on will not include a public option or a requirement that employers provide insurance for their workers. Meanwhile, "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House are still fighting Energy and Commerce committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) over that committee's bill. There are a couple of ways to think about these conflicts.

Despite their intransigence, lawmakers who oppose the public option often represent districts that would benefit greatly from a public plan. Jacob Hacker, a Yale political science professor and public option expert, explains:

A public health plan will be particularly vital for Americans in the rural areas that many Blue Dogs represent. These areas feature both limited insurance competition and shockingly large numbers of residents without adequate coverage. By providing a backup plan that competes with private insurers, the public plan will broaden coverage and encourage private plans to reduce their premiums. Perhaps that's why support for a public plan is virtually as high in generally conservative rural areas as it is nationwide, with 71 percent of voters expressing enthusiasm.

Next week will be the 35th anniversary of the very final days of President Richard Nixon. On the evening of August 8, 1974, he announced he would resign the presidency the next day at noon. Shortly after his resignation took effect, he boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn—and was gone.

What made Nixon's resignation unavoidable was the release of the so-called "smoking gun" tape, which had captured a conversation he had with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, six days after the Watergate break-in of 1972. On the tape, Nixon and Haldeman could be heard plotting to block the Watergate investigation by encouraging the CIA to tell the FBI that national security issues were involved. With this tape public, many of the Republicans still supporting Nixon gave up the ghost.

Nixon departed the White House and was subsequently pardoned by President Gerald Ford. And he left behind several mysteries, including what the Watergate burglars were after (if anything specific) and how involved Nixon was in the caper. Another big mystery was the 18 and a 1/2 minute gap on the tape of another meeting between Nixon and Haldeman, this one held just three days following the break-in. The missing minutes, a panel of audio experts found, were the result of several deliberate erasures.

What was wiped out? Did these passages further incriminate Nixon or explain the break-in? The National Archives a few years ago tried to use new technology to coax that conversation back to life--and had no luck. Now, as I report, the Archives, thanks to the prodding of a Watergate hobbyist, is weighing a new approach. It's considering using a CSI-ish procedure to recover what might be missing Haldeman notes from this infamous meeting. David Paynter, the archivist in charge of the Watergate collection says, "Here's another avenue to shed light on an important episode in history. It's very exciting.

Read all about it here.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.


This Explains A Lot

William Shatner reads Sarah Palin's "North to the Future":