Mojo - November 2009

On Reading the Bill

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 11:24 AM EST

Should members of Congress read the bills they vote on?

It seems like the answer is an obvious "yes." That intuitive response is what the Sunlight Foundation is counting on. Sunlight, a Washington-based transparency and good government group, has been leading the charge for the "read the bill" movement. But a closer look at the "Read the Bill" website reveals what's really going on.

Sunlight isn't actually lobbying for a law requiring that members of Congress read legislation before voting on it. How would you enforce such a law? Quizzes? Swearing under oath? Instead, Sunlight is pushing for the institution of a "72-hour rule" requiring that non-emergency legislation be posted online for three days before debate begins. That is a good idea (pretty much every other good government group has endorsed it), but it won't necessarily do anything to ensure that members of Congress read the bill, let alone understand it. In fact, if you take a look at the video promoting their campaign on this page, it's clear that Sunlight is using the oldest trick in the process reformers' book: using current political issues, in this case right-wing rage about health care and the stimulus, to get people interested in process reforms—in this case, the 72-hour rule.  

Most process issues in Congress are only important to one party at a time, depending on whether that party is in or out of power. (Sunlight's Paul Blumenthal has written a history of the 72-hour rule that highlights this very problem.) Reading the bill, involving the minority in legislation, not writing laws "behind closed doors," protecting the filibuster, oversight—these things suddenly become much more important when your party is out of power. (Update: term limits, too!) Likewise, governing parties love to complain about the filibuster supermajority requirement, delaying tactics, the slow pace of judicial confirmations, and so on. It's very easy to find members of Congress contradicting themselves on these questions depending on whether they're in the majority or the minority.

Of course, the flagrant hypocrisy of most lawmakers doesn't mean they're are always wrong. Posting bills online will give outside groups like Sunlight more time to analyze legislative language and figure out what exactly the bills do. That's probably a net good. But the real issue is not whether your representatives simply read the bills they vote on. It's whether they understand them. For that, you need far more sweeping reform.

Sunlight has slammed Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) for asking: "What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?" But Conyers is right. Bruce Bartlett explains:

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Your "Representatives" in Congress

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 10:40 AM EST

Photo by flickr user landahlauts used under a Creative Commons license.Photo by flickr user landahlauts used under a Creative Commons license.Ever wondered why our country's laws so often favor the rich over middle and working-class people? Consider this: Last week, the Center for Responsive Politics released its latest survey of congressional financial disclosure forms. Of the 535 voting members of Congress, over 44 percent of—237 to be exact—are millionaires. Fifty members have net worths of at least $10 million, and seven are worth more than $100 million. (I profiled Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is now the richest member of Congress, in the September/October issue of Mother Jones.)

By comparison, around one percent of Americans are millionaires. There is no other minority group that is as overrepresented in Congress as millionaires are. For black people to be similarly overrepresented compared to their percentage of the population, the entire Congress would have to be black. (Actually, even that wouldn't be enough.) If Mormons were similarly overrepresented, there would be 75 of them in Congress (there are 16 right now).

So next time that the Congress does something that seems outrageously biased in favor of rich people—say, slashing top income tax rates or spending $440 billion over 10 years to cut estate taxes on one quarter of one percent of Americans—remember who members of Congress are really helping: themselves.

Max Baucus' Revolving Door

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 9:15 AM EST

There was just one "no" vote on advancing a climate and energy bill among the Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee last week: Max Baucus. Now the Montana senator plans to claim jurisdiction over significant portions of the bill in his role as chair of the Finance Committee, starting with a hearing on the topic this morning.

Baucus, who has advocated for lower near-term emissions targets and provisions to lower the overall costs of a climate bill, is probably hearing from lobbyists of all stripes these days. But none are likely to have his ear like the dozen former staffers who are now lobbying on climate and energy policy for groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the Business Roundtable, Koch Industries, and the National Biodiesel Board. The Sunlight Foundation put together a chart illustrating the relationships between Baucus, his former staffers, and their clients. 

Former Baucus staffers are now lobbying on behalf of clients who both support and opposed climate legislation. The includes four former chiefs of staff who have gone through the revolving door. Among them is former chief of staff David Castagnetti, who works for Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and represents a number of groups who oppose the legislation or have sought to weaken it, like the American Petroleum Institute, the Business Roundtable, Edison Electric Institute, the Air Transport Association of America and Koch Industries.

Michael Evans, a former legislative director, now works at K&L Gates, and has clients ranging from the Environmental Defense Fund, which is staunchly pro-climate bill, to Peabody Coal, one of the largest coal companies in the country and a fierce opponent of carbon regulations. Former chief tax counsel Nick Giordano, now at Ernst & Young, lobbies for Boeing Co., Exxon Mobil, General Electric, National Biodiesel Board, the National Hydropower Association, and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Ethics rules only require a one-year "cooling off" period before staffers-turned-lobbyists can approach their former bosses.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 10, 2009

Tue Nov. 10, 2009 5:55 AM EST

Members of Fort Hood-based 15th Sustainment Brigade observe a moment of
silence in front of the brigade headquarters, Nov. 8, for those that were killed and wounded in the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, Nov. 5. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Catholic Bishops Call the Shots on Health Care Reform

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 5:36 PM EST

We now know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which in the end run reports to Rome, was involved in the crafting and promotion of the Stupak Amendment, the provision that transformed a tepid health care victory for the Democrats into a serious loss for women’s reproductive rights. Hard as it is to believe, this sober conclave seems to have outstripped even the screaming fundamentalist Protestants in wielding influence over Congressional policymaking in this instance. 

The Stupak Amendment was promulgated by a devout Catholic Democrat from Michigan, who is now being celebrated as a pro-life hero. He and 63 other Democrats insisted on the anti-choice measure, under threat of crushing the whole bill, and they reportedly worked with the USCCB to come up with "acceptable" language for the amendment. The bishops apparently had a direct line to the Repubican leadership, as well:  According to Politico, "Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Republican leader John Boehner to make sure the GOP didn’t play any games with the Stupak (abortion) amendment, sources said.”  

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, despairs of what he calls the American bishops’ “obsession” with sex and sexual politics. In an interview today, O'Brien said these bishops are supposed to be dedicated to the sick, poor, and vulnerable, all of whom desperately need decent health care. Yet they have shown themselves willing “to burn health care reform” over the abortion issue–a postion that places them out of line with the majority of lay Catholics.

Is Bonner Still Lying to Congress?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 2:19 PM EST

In the never-ending ethics scandal that is Bonner and Associates, today's news is that their independent ethics adviser, American University professor James Thurber, is severing his relationship with the group—and may never have been formally retained at all.

This comes less than a week after Thurber took out a full-page ad in Roll Call praising Jack Bonner and raising questions about the how ethical their new ethics adviser could really be.

Thurber now tells Roll Call it was a "mistake" and a "lapse in judgment" to run the ad, which was taken out at his behest on behalf of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. The ad praised Bonner for "over 15 years of teaching excellence" and ran soon after Bonner testified before Congress about the forged letters his group sent to Congress.

To make matters worse, many of the people name-dropped in Thurber's ad as "notable guest lecturers" in Bonner's grassroots lobbying workshop were not even notified about the ad before it ran. Many of them are, understandably, "outraged" to have their names appropriated to support someone whose firm is currently under investigation for lying to Congress. While Bonner was apparently given a sneak-peak of the ad before it ran, the folks listed were never asked about appearing in the ad.

Not only is Thurber ending his relationship with Bonner, he now says that there was never a contractual agreement for him to advise Bonner in the first place. "I mentioned to Mr. Bonner his need for ethics training for his staff.... There was no contractual arrangement for me to be involved with Bonner and Associates pro bono or otherwise," he said in a statement.

But in his testimony to Congress last month, Bonner said that the group had retained Thurber as an "independent Ethical Standards Advisor," part of the five-step plan for quality control they were supposedly instating. Thurber, Bonner said, is "well-regarded as maintaining the highest ethical standards and independence" and would be retained to "review our policies and work with us to continue to improve our internal quality control system to the highest standards."

Bonner's spokesperson tells TPMmuckraker that Thurber must either be speaking "in error" or "probably didn't remember" agreeing to be their adviser. "Professor Thurber told us that he would provide ethics training without fee, and he has now told us that he has decided he will not do that."

It's hard to decide which looks worse for Bonner—that they would retain an adviser who so flagrantly violated a reasonable understanding of ethics and independence with the ad, or that the group apparently lied to Congress about retaining him in the first place.

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Conservative Christian Group Calls for "No More Muslims" In Military

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 1:20 PM EST

The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, has published an article on its website calling for Muslims to be barred from military service. Bryan Fischer, AFA's Director of Issues Analysis, argues that the Fort Hood shootings are a signal that "It it is time to stop the practice of allowing Muslims to serve in the U.S. military":

[T]he more devout a Muslim is, the more of a threat he is to national security. Devout Muslims, who accept the teachings of the Prophet as divinely inspired, believe it is their duty to kill infidels....

Of course, most U.S. Muslims don't shoot up their fellow soldiers. Fine. As soon as Muslims give us a foolproof way to identify their jihadis from their moderates, we'll go back to allowing them to serve. You tell us who the ones are that we have to worry about, prove you're right, and Muslims can once again serve. Until that day comes, we simply cannot afford the risk. You invent a jihadi-detector that works every time it's used, and we'll welcome you back with open arms.

This is not Islamophobia, it is Islamo-realism....

And just as Christians are taught to imitate the life of Christ, so Muslims are taught to imitate the Prophet in all things. Yesterday, Nidal Malik Hasan was simply being a good Muslim.

You can read the whole thing here. Fair warning: It's a vast wasteland of stupid. I don't think I need to waste time responding to its "points": if you can't immediately see how bigoted it is, there's no way I'm going to be able to convince you otherwise.

If you're looking for a more reasonable view, here's Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, who definitely knows more about the Army than this clown:

"Our diversity... is a strength. As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well."

Right on.

Nidal Hasan and Al Qaeda

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 12:28 PM EST

ABC News says that "US intelligence agencies" knew for weeks that Army Major Nidal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, had tried "to make contact with people associated with Al Qaeda." The piece also reports (citing an unnamed "senior lawmaker") that the CIA has "so far" refused to brief Congress about whether it had prior knowlege of any connections between Hasan and Al Qaeda.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones alum Justin Elliott reports that the CIA is denying that it refused to brief Congress—but Elliott says nothing about whether the CIA contradicted the ABC piece's core claim about the intelligence community knowing that Hasan had been trying to make contact with Al Qaeda.

Bottom line: the situation is still very unclear, but since Hasan is now awake and talking, we'll probably know more very soon.

The Two-Minute Speech

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 11:15 AM EST

Rep. George Miller's 90-second speech mocking the GOP health care plan got me thinking about how political information gets disseminated. The 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated that YouTube creates some interesting incentives for politicians. Before YouTube, if you wanted your point to reach the largest possible audience, it was crucial that you fit in some real "zingers" that could be turned into quotes in newspapers or sound bites on the evening news. Your argument and the structure of your speech (or the structure of your questioning of a witness at a hearing) didn't matter as much. 

In the YouTube era, people's attention spans for political speech are actually slightly longer. It's not just that people will watch Barack Obama, by all accounts a great orator, give a 40-minute speech on race. It also seems that people will watch five minutes of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who is no Barack Obama, blasting the Federal Reserve. They may even be willing to watch 90 seconds of George Miller, a powerful but fairly obscure legislator, criticizing Republicans. And the realization that people are okay with watching those sorts of things has affected television. When I interviewed him last month for a profile in the next issue of Mother Jones, Grayson said that he specifically aims for short, YouTube-friendly speeches—and those speeches are short enough and fiery enough that they sometimes end up being played, unedited, on national television. Here's what he said when I asked him how he deals with what he sees as the media's fixation on manners:

Since we are speaking directly to the audience these days, it doesn't really matter. I consistently give speeches no longer than two minutes. Very few of my colleagues in congress do that. The result of that is that every once in a while we get lucky and the entire speech is played without editing on national TV, so I'm able to communicate directly to a national audience without the mediation of the media.

Miller's speech follows that mold. This is a good thing. The more people get to see what Congress is actually like, the better.

Anthony Foxx and Sarah Palin

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 10:59 AM EST

Ben Smith passes on a column by the Charlotte Observer's Mary Newsom on Charlotte's new Democratic mayor, Anthony Foxx:

Amid the bloviation-fest following Tuesday's election, Charlotte's mayoral election seems to have kept on flying under the national political radar. Odd.

Think about it: A young African-American Democrat, raised by a single mom and his grandparents, now a successful lawyer, aims for a seat that's been Republicans for years. He mobilizes young and African-American voters and wins in a strong showing. Sound familiar?

[...]

Democrat Anthony Foxx's win over Republican John Lassiter is not an insignificant anthill on the political landscape. The largest city in the nation's 10th largest state elected its first Democratic mayor in 22 years, an African-American in a majority-white Southern city, a progressive mass transit supporter and an environmentalist.

Charlotte is America's 18th-largest city, with a population of 687,456 in 2008. That means that Foxx now governs slightly more people than Sarah Palin, onetime candidate for vice president, did as governor of the state of Alaska. Charlotte has more people than Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and Wyoming. If you take the population of the entire Charlotte metropolitan area, the contrast is even more striking. With around 1.7 million people, the Charlotte metro area has a population larger than 11 states and the District of Columbia. Each of those 11 states has two Senators. The political structure of this country is truly bizarre.