Mojo - October 2009

US Chamber Shrinks Membership 90%

| Wed Oct. 14, 2009 12:33 PM EDT

A day after Mother Jones exposed the US Chamber of Commerce's inflated membership number, the Chamber quietly backed off the figure in its public statements. At a Washington press conference Wednesday morning unveiling the Chamber's Campaign for Free Enterprise, Chamber officials repeatedly cited a membership of 300,000. That's a tenth as many members as the Chamber claimed a day earlier, when a press release for the Washington event said the Chamber represented "more than 3 million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region."

Since 1997, the "3 million" figure has appeared in print more than 200 times in newspapers and broadcast outlets of all sizes, including, in the past year, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the UK Guardian, the Associated Press, Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly, and National Public Radio. By contrast, the 300,000 figure, which appears nowhere on the Chamber's website, is cited in the news database Lexis-Nexis only three times--infrequently enough to be mistaken for a typo. The smaller number was used on October 9th by CNN, November 12, 2008 by the Denver Post, and August, 2003 by the Journal of Public Affairs. After getting the membership number correct, the Denver Post joined the rest of the media this April, describing the Chamber as "a business advocacy group with more than 3 million members."

As Mother Jones detailed on Tuesday, the Chamber's assertion that it represents "3 million" businesses is most likely based on claiming the membership of 2,800 state and local chambers of commerce as its own. But while local chambers are often dues-paying members of the US Chamber, they aren't chartered or controlled by it, nor does membership grant them a say in electing its leaders or setting its policies, which are determined by a self-appointed board composed of large companies. Moreover, local chambers do little to support the national group financially. The Greater New York Chamber of Commerce pays annual dues to the US Chamber of only $1000. That means the 2,800 local chambers probably contribute less than 3 percent of the US Chamber's $100 million budget.

As recently as 2001, before the the US Chamber fully embraced its accounting gimmick, it claimed only 150,000 corporate members.

There is, of course, a semantic difference between claiming to "represent" 3 million businesses and claiming those businesses as members. Yet the distinction has been lost on the media and even occasionally on the Chamber itself. "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership," Chamber spokesman Eric Wholschlegel told the New York Times last month in a story about the utility PG&E's departure from the Chamber over its climate policy. After three more high-profile companies quit the Chamber, the LA Times wrote, "The US Chamber of Commerce touts itself as the world's largest business federation, boasting 3 million members. Err, make that 2,999,996." The Times' math would have been correct, if it had subtracted another 2,699,996 companies.

Even when granting the US Chamber its semantic tricks, it's not certain that local chambers are comfortable with its "3 million" number. "They don't represent me," Mark Jaffe, CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, told me Tuesday.

Chamber leaders seem to agree, given their decision to scale back their membership number by 90 percent today. The question is when the rest of the media will notice. Ignoring the Chamber's new number, an AP story on the Chamber's press conference, published Wednesday afternoon on the website of the Washington Post, said "the Chamber of Commerce claims a membership of 3 million businesses and organizations." The number most likely came from the Chamber's original press release. The Sierra Club promptly wrote to the AP asking for a correction.

Here are 17 other news organizations that have reported the "3 million" number since 2008:

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Stand-Up Economist's Letter to Obama Adviser

| Wed Oct. 14, 2009 11:36 AM EDT

Yoram Bauman (no relation), who calls himself "the world's first and only stand-up economist," has penned an open letter to Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee. (Goolsbee did some stand-up comedy himself earlier this month.):

Dear Austan:

You might think that it was quite a shock for me–"the world’s first and only stand-up economist"–to find a Wall Street Journal blog with the headline “Austan Goolsbee, stand-up economist“.

But in fact I was not shocked, or even surprised. You and your colleagues in the Obama administration have been quite active in redrawing the line between the public and private sectors, and it would not have been rational for me to expect that economics comedy would be immune from the onslaught.

Now, I could take your comedy endeavors as a threat and respond by hiring lobbyists to protect my turf, or by making an appearance on Fox News as “Joe the comedian”. But unlike plumbers or insurance executives or most other private sector businesses, stand-up comedians oppose barriers to entry. Although it pains me to remember the times I was crushed in comedy competitions by high school drop-outs telling fart jokes, I also remember that those crushing defeats made me stronger.

So I welcome the competition, even from the government (heck, especially from the government!) and in fact this letter is an open invitation for you to come join me in performing at the American Economic Association humor session in Atlanta on January 3, 2010. The humor session is free and open to the public, and will also feature Hugo Mialon of Emory University, Jodi N. Beggs of economistsdoitwithmodels.com, and country music legend Merle Hazard. University of Wisconsin professor Ken West will be emceeing, so you can RSVP to him or to me, or just show up unannounced and wait for Ken to invite you onstage. We even have a title for your presentation: Stand-Up Economics: The Public Option!

Regards, and hope to see you in Atlanta,
yoram bauman phd, standupeconomist.com
"the world’s first and only [private sector] stand-up economist"

I'm sure Yoram isn't the only one who would be psyched to see Goolsbee cracking up the crowd in Atlanta. But what would Rahm Emanuel think?

Bush Admin Acknowledged Threat of Climate Change

| Wed Oct. 14, 2009 10:27 AM EDT

The Bush administration Environmental Protection Agency actually reached the conclusion back in 2008 that climate change was a threat to humans. They just decided not to let anyone know about it.

The Bush administration kept the document declaring that carbon dioxide pollution endangers public welfare under wraps, but the Obama EPA released it to E&E yesterday. The response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA is marked "Deliberative, Do Not Distribute." Excerpts were released last year, so it was widely known that the report had concluded that climate change was a problem. But now the actual document is available to the public.

"The Administrator proposes to find that the air pollution of elevated levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public welfare," the document reads.

The document makes it clear that the Bush EPA's environmental experts concluded in their draft that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human welfare and should therefore be regulated, and the finding was approved by Administrator Stephen Johnson. But the White House Office of Management and Budget would not sign off on the document, and even went so far as to refuse to open the email containing the finding so that they would not have to acknowledge it publicly. If they had acknowledged the finding, they would have been compelled by law to move forward on regulations, which the Bush administration strongly opposed. Instead, they left the finding to the Obama team, which reached a similar conclusion in April.

A congressional investigation last year concluded that the White House changed course on the endangerment finding after hearing from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Office of Management and Budget, the Transportation Department, and Exxon Mobil Corp., among others.

The 29-page document makes it clear that administration officials were well aware of the threats of climate change, including changes to precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, the melting of glaciers, and ecosystem disruptions.

Trial Date Set for Alleged $720m Coast Guard Contract Fraud

| Wed Oct. 14, 2009 10:25 AM EDT

A $720 million whistleblower lawsuit against Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of America's biggests military contractors, can move forward, a US District judge has ruled.  Michael DeKort, the whistleblowing former Lockheed engineer, says the companies wasted taxpayer dollars and didn't fulfil the terms of their contracts under the Coast Guard's $26 billion Deepwater modernization program. The Deepwater program has a history of problems—eight ships that were supposed to be modernized ended up structurally unsound, for example—but the government has yet to recover the money it paid the contractors for what DeKort (and government reports) said was shoddy work. DeKort is aiming to change that by bringing his suit under the False Claims Act, which allows citizens to sue to recover government money and keep some of the winnings for themselves. A trial date is set for November 2010.

The judge gave the defendants until the end of the day on Wednesday to file any new motion to dismiss DeKort's case.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 14, 2009

Wed Oct. 14, 2009 7:16 AM EDT

Elmo takes time to hug some children during the morning performance of the Sesame Workshop's Talk, Listen, Connect initiative show in U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Oct. 2. The Sesame Street characters address the topic of deployment and discuss healthy ways that military children can deal with them. More than 1,650 children, parents and teachers attended the two performances. (Photo by Brittany Carlson via army.mil.)

Need To Read: October 14, 2009

Wed Oct. 14, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. 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.)

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Yo, Chamber of Commerce, You Speakin' For Me?

| Tue Oct. 13, 2009 5:48 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Wed Oct. 14, 2009 10:30 AM EDT

Leaders of some of the largest urban chambers of commerce are distancing themselves from the US Chamber in the wake of recent controversies over its inflated membership numbers, undemocratic structure, and right-wing policy positions. In recent interviews, they strongly disagreed with the national group's positions on health care and climate change and disputed its implicit claim to speak for their members.


"They don’t represent me," says Mark Jaffe, CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, which is a dues-paying member of the national group.  He added that the Chamber's "parochial interests"—large corporations that control its self-appointed board of directors—"are well represented."


Jaffe also scoffed at the US Chamber's oft-repeated claim to "represent 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions." Yesterday Mother Jones questioned the number, which appears to be based on the idea that the Chamber "represents" the members of the New York Chamber and similar local groups. That number of members would comprise more than half of the 5.7 million employers in the United States. "They are playing games" with their numbers, Jaffe said. "They don’t have half the businesses in America as registered, dues-paying members."


The New York Chamber has no plans to leave the national Chamber (its annual membership dues are only $1000 per year), yet neither is Jaffe happy with the group. "We get involved in some of their activities," like working to modernize airports, he said, "but we don’t agree with all of their principles either, like their position on health care. You have to be selfish, blind, or stupid not to want everybody to be required to have health care."


Jaffe’s objections to the US Chamber’s policies were echoed by Rob Black, vice-president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "We take a fundamentally different approach than the US Chamber," he said, adding that while the national Chamber opposes the Waxman-Markey climate bill, "we support a market-driven cap-and-trade system. It’s good for business, but it’s also a good way to try to spur innovation and new technologies."

Corn on "Hardball": Liz Cheney Following in Her Father's Footsteps

Tue Oct. 13, 2009 4:20 PM EDT

David Corn and Michael Isikoff joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Liz Cheney and William Kristol's new political organization and how the Obama administration will respond.

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

Fatah Slams Obama. Where Does Abbas Stand?

| Tue Oct. 13, 2009 4:06 PM EDT

As the adage says, if you're a friend to everyone, you're a friend to no one. This seemed to be confirmed Monday when Fatah, the moderate Palestinian political party that controls the West Bank, distributed a memo saying that its support for President Obama "evaporated" after he bent to pressure from the Zionist lobby. But since Obama also drew Israeli criticism in June for opposing Israel's construction of settlements in Palestinian territories in a Cairo speech, the Fatah statement comes as a surprise. The dominance of the hard-line American Israel lobby has receded in recent years and President Obama is widely seen as more supportive of the Palestinian Authority than his predecessors. So why the ire?

Upon closer examination, Fatah's statement says more about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' political capital than it does about Obama's leadership. As the AP writes, it is unclear whether Abbas was even involved with the memo:

The memo comes at a time of turmoil within Fatah after Abbas quickly reversed a decision to suspend efforts to bring Israel before a U.N. war crimes tribunal in connection with the Gaza war.
The document, dated Oct. 12, was issued by Fatah's Office of Mobilization and Organization. The office is headed by the party's No. 2, Mohammed Ghneim.
It was not immediately clear whether the document reflects Abbas' views or whether it was leaked to pressure Obama to bear down harder on Israel. Abbas' aides had no comment and Ghneim could not immediately be reached for comment.

Take That, Dick Cheney!

| Tue Oct. 13, 2009 11:23 AM EDT

Last week, in his first successful piece of legislation, freshman Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) persuaded the Senate to approve a measure banning federal contracts with defense companies that use mandatory binding arbitration clauses in employment contracts that prevent sexual assault victims from suing. The measure not only proves once again that elections matter, but it also comes as a major rebuke to none other than former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The back story: Franken's bill was inspired by Halliburton/KBR contractor Jamie Leigh Jones, who was allegedly raped by her co-workers and held hostage in a shipping container by her employer in Iraq in 2005. Not only did the Justice Department and the military fail to investigate or prosecute her attackers, but as Mother Jones reported back in 2007, Jones was unable to sue the company, either, in no small part thanks to Cheney.

Cheney had been the Halliburton CEO who instituted a company-wide policy to include mandatory binding arbitration clauses in employment contracts. Jones was forced to sign such a contract before heading off to Iraq in 2005 and has spent four years fighting in federal court to void the contract. Jones wasn't the only defense contractor/sexual assault victim prevented from suing because of arbitration clauses.Franken was understandably outraged, and he gave a surprisingly compelling speech from the Senate floor, saying:

The constitution gives everybody the right to due process of law … And today, defense contractors are using fine print in their contracts do deny women like Jamie Leigh Jones their day in court. The victims of rape and discrimination deserve their day in court [and] Congress plainly has the constitutional power to make that happen.

Franken was so persuasive that even a few Republicans got on board; his amendment passed 68 to 30.