Need To Read: October 9, 2009

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.)

The drive for financial reform in DC seems to be fast losing momentum. Enter Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who has long been an advocate for working families and a critic of predatory lending. As chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the finance bailout—Capitol Hill’s top finance cop—she, along with TARP watchdog Neil Barofsky, has blasted wasteful bailout spending and the finance industry’s lack of accountability. But her top goal is the creation of a Consumer Finance Safety Commission that would do for loans what the Consumer Products Safety Commission does for toys and blenders. The White House has endorsed her proposal, but will Wall Street kill it in Congress? David Corn has the story—plus some intriguing dish on Warren’s rapport with White House adviser Larry Summers.

Once again, "America’s Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County showed the U.S. Justice Department who's boss this week. In what the New York Times called an "angry, rambling outburst" at a press conference Tuesday, Arpaio vowed to continue his controversial immigration raids under the authority of state laws, even though Justice Department officials instructed his deputies to stop making immigration arrests in the field.

This blatant defiance of federal law is reminiscent of another American anti-federalist, George Wallace, the governor who famously blocked two black students from entering an Alabama State University auditorium in 1963, nearly ten years after Brown v. Board of Education. Wallace stood firmly against desegregation even after the federal government mandated it. Now, Arpaio seems to be taking a page from his playbook in matters related to immigration.

The statute currently in question is section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which enables local officials to enforce immigration laws with the approval of the Department of Homeland Security. Jennifer Allen of the Tucson-based Border Action Network explains that either party can opt out of the agreement, as DHS did partially earlier this week. So, she said, it is now illegal for Arpaio to continue his immigration raids without the approval of DHS. "There are no state-level laws that say you can set up a check point in a predominantly low-income Latino neighborhood and start pulling people over left and right for insignificant pretenses." 

As early as Friday, the Supreme Court could clear the way for the release of dozens of photos of detainee abuse. But Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are working to make sure the pictures never see the light of day, even if the high court opts not to hear the government's appeal in ACLU v. Department of Defense.

In June, Lieberman and Graham proposed a law that would specifically preempt the release of photographs depicting detainee abuse by carving out an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). (I explained why that's such a terrible idea here.) House liberals killed the Lieberman-Graham bill, but now it's back from the dead. House and Senate conferees have approved language in a Homeland Security appropriations bill that would give the Defense Department the power to suppress essentially any photos of detainee abuse it doesn't want the public to see.

The ACLU is, needless to say, upset that Congress (with the White House's support) may undercut FOIA and render meaningless the entire court fight over the photos. "It's frustrating on many levels," Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, told Mother Jones. "The public has a right to see the photos. They would shed light on questions of accountability. We don't think that democracies are made stronger when they conceal evidence of their own wrongdoing."

Jaffer isn't optimistic about the prospects of stopping the provision this time around. "Barring some groundswell of opposition, this provision will become law," he says. The ACLU is considering what its options might be if that happens, Jaffer says.

The ACLU still has some reason for hope. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, was a key figure in the initial fight against the photo suppression bill, and she could use her powerful position to try to stop the bill again. A spokesman for Slaughter says it's not over yet, because the "bill is still being hashed out." He notes that Slaughter "remains opposed to any weakening of FOIA and believes that release of the photos would not harm our standing in the world." In the face of a White House, Pentagon, and Senate that are unified in their support for suppressing the photos, can one congresswoman make a difference?

Back in 2007 Mother Jones published an investigation called "School of Shock" into the Judge Rotenberg Center, a special-needs school that uses electric shocks and food deprivation to discipline its autistic and emotionally troubled students. Based in Canton, Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) has been a blight to concerned citizens and parents for years. Massachusetts state senator Brian Joyce has introduced legislation several  times over the years to outlaw using electric shocks on children, but so far none have gone into effect (one passed, but was later dropped). Currently, the senator has three bills in the legislature that would reduce or totally ban the use of electric shocks on students.

While Joyce works on a local level, 29 disability organizations sent a letter to 10 federal agencies calling for national legislation outlawing the use of electric shocks. The organizations want to outlaw "painful and dehumanizing behavioral techniques" which they say "violates all principles of human rights." For the record, not even US prisoners are allowed to be shocked, but a law passed in the mid-1980s said that the JRC could shock children as long as it got special approval by a family court for each student. Reporter Jennifer Gonnerman tried out the JRC's shock therapy, and wrote that though staff claimed it felt like a bee sting, "when I tried the shock, it felt like a horde of wasps attacking me all at once. Two seconds never felt so long."

Since Mother Jones's story was published in September 2007, shocking kids isn't the only thing the JRC has gotten negative attention for. In spring 2008, a staffer was arrested for raping another staff member on campus, and this week the Boston Globe reported that JRC was fined $29,600 for allowing 14 unlicensed clinicians to call themselves "psychologists." Later this month, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Children and Families will hold a hearing to consider Sen. Joyce's bills on electric shock. Until then, as far as the JRC is concerned, maybe no news is good news.

Earlier this week I wrote about the bike culture in Copenhagen, noting that part of the reason such a large percentage of trips are taken by bike here is that there is a well-crafted infrastructure supporting bike transit. But I left out the biggest factor in promoting bike transit here: the astounding 180 percent tax on cars.

Yes, that's right—180 percent. Each car is taxed nearly twice its value at the point of purchase, and on top of that, drivers pay a sales tax and an annual fee for car ownership. With those kinds of costs, bike riding becomes considerably more appealing, which is why much of the population doesn't own a car. Danes already pay taxes inconceivable to Americans, at a rate of about 50 percent, so car ownership is a bit of a stretch. There are only 2 million cars here to 5.5 million people, meaning only 36 percent of Danes own cars. In the US, 83 percent of the total population owns a car.

Fiore Cartoon: Mercenary ACORN

Should ACORN do military contracting?

Satirists Mark Fiore and Matt Bors reveal the upsides of such an arrangement (more lucrative, laxer rules!) after the jump:

The final conference report for the $680 billion defense budget is out, representing the agreement between the House and Senate on military spending for the next financial year. The text of the legislation is 1,515 pages long, and I'm still wading through it, but here are some highlights:

* No more money for the F-22, preserving Obama's big headline. But plenty of other unrequested items made it into the final legislation.

* The bill asks for a study on selling the F-22 abroad, the latest tactic by the plane's supporters to keep the production line open.

* At the eleventh hour in conference, negotiators added $560 million to develop a second engine for the F-136 Joint Strike Fighter plane. The White House had earlier threatened a veto if the second engine was funded, but Obama is expected to sign the bill anyway.

* It also includes money for 18 Super Hornet fighter jets—double the number than the Navy asked for.

* The bill contains a section on military commissions that forbids the interrogation of detainees by contractors; requires that all "strategic interrogations" be videotaped, and mandates that the Red Cross be allowed access to detainees held in Bagram, Afghanistan. (FYI, it also retires the tainted term "enemy combatant" from DOD lingo. They're now "alien unprivileged enemy belligerents.")

* Contains a hate crimes provision opposed by Republicans.

* Adds an extra $15 million to the Department of Defense Inspector General's office for oversight of contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

* And perhaps my favorite: towards the end the bill calls for the Pentagon to fix its epicly busted accounting systems so that it can actually produce an auditable financial statement explaining where exactly its money goes. The deadline? "Not later than September 30, 2017."

Amid all the recent headlines about the US Chamber of Commerce, it's easy to forget that it does much more than work to derail climate legislation. The nation's largest business lobby, with more than 3 million member companies, takes positions on everything from financial regulation to judicial nominations to health care. That's why some companies that disagree with the Chamber's antiregulatory climate stance say they're sticking with the group. Their prepared statements start with some variation of: "We don't always agree with the Chamber, but. . ."

To be sure, a company that has never staked much of its profits or reputation on the environment can reasonably claim that the Chamber's dirty behavior isn't a relationship breaker. But what about companies that manufacture solar panels or took out full-page ads in the green issue of Vanity Fair? Belonging to the Chamber would seem to undermine their bottom lines, or at least pull the rug out from under their green marketing campaigns.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, at least 18 remaining members of the Chamber’s board publicly support federal climate policy. Bruce Freed, the president of the Center for Public Accountability, a shareholder activism group, is urging them to distance themselves from the Chamber.  "Where there is a fundamental disagreement with company values, with company business strategies," he says, "companies really do need to act on that. Its a matter of companies holding their trade associations accountable."

Here are six "green" companies that might be hurting themselves by remaining members of the nation's biggest stick in the mud on climate change:

Did the selection of an ex-energy company lobbyist to serve on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission drive a recent rally in the oil market? Energy analyst and Fox Business contributor Phil Flynn raises this theory in a recent column, pointing out that Scott O'Malia's nomination is being viewed as a positive sign by investors who are worried that the commission, under chairman Gary Gensler, may take an overly aggressive stand on speculation.

Flynn writes:

Another interesting take on the weird movements in oil actually was suggested by one of my readers. He seemed to think that the recent buying in oil had to do with politics and the CFTC. He seemed to think that the CFTC’s approval of Scott O’Malia as CFTC Commissioner reduces the risk that the agency will force aggressive position limits on oil... Mr. O ‘Malia is seen by the marketplace as more of a free marketer and will provide balance to the debate over speculation by filling the fifth and final seat on the CFTC commission...

Hopefully this will provide some balance as the agency's new chairman Gary Gensler seems biased against the speculators argument that they did not cause the spike in oil price but only reflected the massive uncertainty surrounding the greatest economic crisis in recent times. As the agency moves to reign in speculation, it is hoped that this confirmation of O’Malia will make sure the agency doesn't go too far in a rush to judgment.