Mojo - September 2009

Reframing the Climate Debate One Flawed Hearing at a Time

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

Yesterday afternoon the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met to discuss the costs of the increasingly endangered cap-and-trade legislation. It was unclear why the committee, which has already advanced its own much-derided portion of the Senate climate effort, was even meeting to discuss cap-and-trade. That is, until the senators went off script—but never off message.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) missed the preceding hour of testimony from the assembled experts, but that did not stop him from lambasting the proposed "cap-and-tax scheme" that he claimed would only benefit the "Wall Street elite" and went on to predict an onslaught of ill-defined "green collar crime." For evidence, he cited a report from London's Sunday Times about the UN suspending the largest auditor of the Kyoto Protocol's offsets program for impropriety. Instead of interpreting this as a strike against cap-and-trade, however, the experts found the action to be an altogether positive development. (In short, stronger standards for emissions auditors mean more effective offsets.)

The next late arrival to seize the bully pulpit was Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of four centrist Democrats who've proposed shelving greenhouse gas regulation. He made sure to remind his colleagues how "very complicated and very difficult" it is to create effective cap-and-trade regulation. He also promoted the concept of a "carbon fee." The fee, a carbon tax by another name, is a fiscally elegant solution to climate change that is a political nonstarter—just ask French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But then Dorgan isn't interested in starting to address the climate crisis: "I think there's more to talk about, frankly," he concluded.

The most compelling points of the afternoon were made—no doubt inadvertently—by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who during 17 years in office has supported environmental legislation a mere 12 percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters. "What do we get in terms of actual economic benefit from controlling greenhouse gas emissions?" he asked the beleaguered witnesses. Professor Michael Wara of Stanford informed Bennett that recent studies show that even the widely criticized House climate bill would more than pay for itself.

Sen. Bennett countered by repeating a bit of advice he'd received from carbon traders in the UK. "Go slow and go small," they allegedly told him. The overflow crowd of energy company lobbyists packed into the cramped hearing room let out a murmur of knowing chuckles as Senator Bingaman both responded to Bennett's anecdote and acknowledged the reason for the afternoon's hearing: "So far we're following that advice."

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Rep. Tom Price: Public Option Will Cheat

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 11:28 AM EDT

The American Conservative Union, one of the co-sponsors of Saturday's big anti-government rally in DC, is holding its Legacy Council conference in DC today. All the congressional Republican conservatives will be there pow-wowing with the activists. One group that won't be: the media. ACU tells me that the only way for a reporter to get in is to pay the nearly $400 cover charge. Fortunately for us, ACU is Twittering its own event so we can see what we're missing.

Among the gems: Rep. Tom Price, the Republican doctor from Georgia, just told conferees that he believed that the public option—the supposed market competitor—would cheat to get ahead of the honest private companies competing to cover all those uninsured Americans who can't afford their products now.

I love how a few weeks ago, the GOP message was that the government would be so good at running an insurance plan that private insurers wouldn't have a chance. But then they realized that made government look effective, defeating their other messages about government as the problem. So the new message is that the government plan would simply cheat. Nice! Wish Price had said just how the government would actually do that.

Cowboys of Kabul Plead Guilty, But the Ride Ain't Over

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 10:37 AM EDT

Less than two weeks before they were scheduled to stand trial, Del and Barbara Spier pleaded guilty to charges of defrauding the US government in connection with their company's security operation in Afghanistan. In July, I detailed how the Texas grandparents, bankrupt as of 2002, cashed in on the contracting bonanza with a little help from their friends at the Louis Berger Group. The construction firm, selected by USAID to rebuild crucial parts of Afghanistan's bombed-out infrastructure, handed the Spiers' company, US Protection and Investigations (USPI), a noncompete contract to protect its employees and subcontractors in the field. In the years that followed, the Justice Department charged, the Spiers proceeded to systematically bilk the government, billing for nonexistent expenses from fictitious companies and inflating the number of Afghan guards on their payroll.

USPI's shady business practices extended beyond fraud. The company cut deals with local militia commanders (one of them accused of a range of wrongdoing, including the attempted kidnapping of Afghanistan's then-attorney general), paying their men a per diem in exchange for performing guard duties. Many of these ragtag soldiers were ill-trained, their loyalties shaky. Some apparently used their authority to engage in criminal activity, including drug trafficking and petty shakedowns. Ex-USPI supervisors I spoke with had no illusion that these guards would hold their ground if the going got tough. "If it came down to a firefight, they would have bailed on us," one told me. 

Colbert on the Impending Campaign Finance Armageddon

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 9:36 AM EDT

You may have heard that corporations are people, people have the right to free speech, money is speech, and therefore campaign finance restrictions are unconstitutional. That's basically why the totally-non-activist conservative majority on John Roberts' Supreme Court might decide to throw out 100 years of precedent and just let corporations pour unlimited amounts of money into election campaigns. Stephen Colbert breaks it down for you:

Court Okays Halliburton Rape Trial

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 9:34 AM EDT

Remember Jamie Leigh Jones, the Halliburton/KBR contractor who alleged she was gang raped by her co-workers in Iraq and then imprisoned in a shipping container after she reported the attack to the company? Well, it looks like she's finally get to sue the company, in a real courthouse, over her ordeal.

Her legal saga started after Halliburton failed to take any action against her alleged attackers, and the Justice Department and military also failed to prosecute. Jones then tried to sue the company for failing to protect her. But thanks to an employment contract created during the tenure of former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, Jones was forced into mandatory binding arbitration, a private forum where Halliburton would hire the arbitrator, all the proceedings would be secret, and she'd have no right to appeal if she lost.

Data from the American Arbitration Association showed that Halliburton won more than 80 percent of its cases in arbitration, and when I looked at the data two years ago, it showed that out of 119 cases Halliburton arbitrated over a four-year period, only three resulted in the employee actually winning any money. The deck was clearly stacked against Jones from day one.

 

ACORN: A Darrell Issa Scalp?

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 8:00 AM EDT

On Friday, the Census Bureau broke its ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) after several ACORN officials were caught on hidden cameras offering advice to conservative activists posing as a stereotypical prostitute and an outrageously stereotypical pimp. ACORN was originally one of 80,000 community groups that agreed to help promote the Census, but with the hidden-camera footage all over the internet and Fox News, the bureau decided it didn't want the free help. (On Tuesday, the Senate joined the pile-on, overwhelmingly passing a law blocking ACORN from receiving any funding from a number of federal sources.) ACORN, long a target of the right, became a bête noire for conservatives during the 2008 election cycle when Republicans argued that some ACORN employees' submission of fake voter registrations was evidence of massive, widespread voter fraud.

The sudden Census-ACORN divorce was an early scalp for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking GOP member of the House oversight committee, who has been hammering ACORN for months. Issa hasn't minced words: In July, his office released a report asking whether ACORN was "intentionally structured as a criminal enterprise."

Issa quickly took credit for the new developments, crowing to Fox News that "ACORN’s partisan election efforts and its involvement in criminal conduct rightly disqualified it from working on the non-partisan mission of the Census to accurately and honestly count the U.S. population." He also tweeted: "Finally, the Obama Admin passes on the nuts, ending ACORN's Census involvement. Excellent work by Team Oversight," and promised to "stay on the case to make sure the Census Bureau stays nut-free, ACORN or otherwise."

Issa's ACORN win is part of his all-out effort to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire—even though Republicans are a minority in Congress. It's a self-conscious effort to recreate the trouble that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif) caused for the Bush administration when Waxman headed the Democrats on the oversight committee. And the ACORN affair is just the beginning. I profiled Rep. Issa, a car alarm magnate-turned-politician, in the September/October issue. Read it!

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 16, 2009

Wed Sep. 16, 2009 7:59 AM EDT

Afghan National Police officers and U.S. Marines cross a river during a security patrol in the Garmsir district of the Helmand province of Afghanistan Sept. 12, 2009. The Marines, who are assigned to Military Police Company, 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, are deployed with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to train and mentor ANP in counterinsurgency operations. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau)

Need To Read: September 16, 2009

Wed Sep. 16, 2009 7:40 AM EDT

Today's must-reads:

  • No one likes Max Baucus's health care bill (NYT)
  • Chairman of Joint Chiefs says more troops likely needed in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • "No one quite knows when, or how, the system will crumble. But make no mistake: it will, eventually, crumble." (Ezra Klein)
  • "You see here the cost of a really irresponsible elite in the United States of America." (The Economist)
  • My profile of @DarrellIssa from the Sept/Oct issue, "Enter Stage Right." (MoJo)
  • Young people will pay for a lot of health care reform (WaPo)
  • Jon Chait on Ayn Rand and "Wealthcare" (The New Republic)
  • Washington's worst: McConnell and 14 other corrupt lawmakers (MoJo)
  • WWE CEO Linda McMahon to slam Dodd (MoJo)
  • The government has an app store (Bits Blog/NYT)
  • Obama calls Kanye a 'jackass'—the audio (TMZ)
  • Jews: Not "Values Voters"? (MoJo)
  • Death of Usama bin Ladotune (Spencer Ackerman)

I post articles like these throughout the day on twitter. You should follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Beck Watch: FOX in Denial?

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 8:08 PM EDT

A spokesperson for FOX News told TVNewser that claims by ColorofChange that the advertising revenue for Glenn Beck's program has halved since the ad boycott began last month are "wildly inaccurate on all fronts—revenue has not been affected in any way." I find that surprising, considering that the program once hosted blockbuster advertisers like AT&T, Capital One, and Mercedes-Benz, and is now limited to the rather anemic list shown below. But hey, the first step to recovery is denial, right?

Here's who advertised on Glenn Beck's program today:

Rosland Capital

Carbonite

News Corp. (The Wall Street Journal)

BookIt.com

The Foundation for a Better Life

Clarity Media Group (The Weekly Standard)

Lear Capital

Conservatives for Patients' Rights

Citrix (GoToMeeting)

Allstate Insurance Co.

Publisher's Clearing House

LifeLock

Freije Treatment Systems (EasyWater Systems)

Consumer Debt Relief

IRSTaxAgreements.com

Merit Financial

Imperial Structured Settlements

National Review

Rockefeller Says No To Baucus Health Bill

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 5:01 PM EDT

The public option has had a rough couple weeks. But as President Obama talks about "compromise," conservative Democrats waver, and Republicans continue to express their adamant opposition, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), a key member of the Senate Finance Committee, is standing firm. Rockefeller will not vote for the health insurance reform legislation proposed by finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which does not include a public option, Rockefeller told reporters on a Tuesday afternoon conference call.

Baucus's bill proposes health insurance cooperatives; between four and seven such co-ops exist in the US today, depending on how the term is defined. But Rockefeller doesn't think co-ops are enough. He believes the government has the needed experience in providing insurance and has the ability to act as a much-needed competitive force in the insurance market, bringing down costs. "The public option is there as a benchmark that is a discipline for competition," he said.

Rockefeller said he hopes the public option will gain more support as a final vote on health care reform draws near. He suggested that other Democrats on the finance committee shared his concerns with the Baucus bill. It’s hard to imagine any reform bill getting through the finance committee without the support of Rockefeller and other more liberal committee members.