Mojo - November 2009

Senate Bill Would Allow "Mentally Incapacitated" Vets to Buy Guns

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 4:03 AM PST

Major Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood Army base, has been described by former colleagues as "psychotic." As more details emerge about Hasan's troubled state, gun safety advocates are launching fresh attacks on a Senate bill they say would make it easier for mentally unstable veterans to buy firearms.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) says his "Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act" will protect veterans' gun rights. But the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence calls it a "dangerous" proposal that could allow "over 100,000 mentally incapacitated or incompetent persons" to buy guns—people who would previously have been barred from doing so by the Veterans Administration (VA).

With debate over Fort Hood still raging on cable news, one might think that Burr might try to quietly shelve the measure, whose co-sponsors include Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). Instead, Burr fired back at the Brady Campaign in an interview with Fox News, accusing its president, Paul Helmke, of using the tragedy to "exploit the senseless murder of American soldiers in the quest to secure personal triumph."

Responding to Burr Thursday in an open letter, Helmke wrote, "it is hardly 'exploitative' to have an honest debate" about the proposal, which would cancel out key provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and override standards used by the VA for nearly four decades.

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

Mon Nov. 16, 2009 3:59 AM PST

President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., Nov. 11, 2009. (Via army.mil.)

Need To Read: November 16. 2009

Mon Nov. 16, 2009 3:55 AM PST

Today's must reads:

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Gates Bars Torture Photos' Release

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 10:17 PM PST

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has used powers granted to him by a controversial new law to block the court-ordered release of numerous photos of detainee abuse, government lawyers revealed in a court filing [PDF] Friday evening.

Gates' new authority comes from a law, signed by President Barack Obama last month, that gives the Secretary of Defense the power to rule that photos of detainees are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act. Gates' action on Friday was the first use of the new FOIA exemption since it passed Congress last month. The photos in question are the subject of a years-long legal fight by the American Civil Liberties Union, which first filed a FOIA request for records pertaining to detainee treatment, rendition, and death in May of 2005. The case is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The administration first sought to change FOIA in June, shortly after deciding to contest a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that ordered the photos' release. The resulting bill, championed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), was specifically designed to nullify the effect of the appeals court's ruling. Since the court had ruled that the photos couldn't be withheld under an existing FOIA exemption, the Obama administration simply asked Congress to carve out a new exemption. Despite objections from liberal members of the House, Congress obliged.

"Corn on Hardball": Where Did the Eikenberry Leak Come From?

Fri Nov. 13, 2009 4:48 PM PST

David Corn and Susan Page joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the murky origins and potential motivations of the leak of Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's cables cautioning against a troop increase in Afghanistan.

Tune In To Watch MoJo's David Corn On This Week, This Sunday

Fri Nov. 13, 2009 3:50 PM PST

If you didn't watch Mother Jones' D.C. Bureau Chief David Corn duke it out with Ed Schultz on MSNBC's The Ed Show yesterday, be sure to catch him on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.

He'll be appearing with other powerhouse panelists Bob Woodward, Gwen Ifill, George Will, and David Brooks. Topics include: the Justice Department’s Guantanamo decision, Sarah Palin’s new book, and the latest on the Fort Hood shooting. (And who knows, maybe Lou Dobbs' name might even come up.) Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani will also be appearing. Should be an interesting conversation.

This Week airs at 10 a.m. Eastern, 9 Central, 7 Pacific. Sleepy West Coasters in need a few extra hours of shut-eye can also catch the show when it's posted online.

For more updates on David Corn's TV appearances, follow @DavidCornDC on Twitter. Happy weekend, MoJo readers!

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Goldman Sachs Tells How to Cash in on Health Care Reform

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 2:01 PM PST

First we bailed out the teetering Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs; then we had to watch this behemoth firm, flush with taxpayer funds,  recoup its losses and plan more big bonuses, while one in ten Americans is jobless. Now we learn, via Huffington Post, of Goldman’s dispassionate analysis of which health care reform scenario stands to make its clients the most money. Best bet, says Goldman, is to jettison reform altogether and watch insurance stocks rise 59 percent. And if that can’t happen, they should hope for the weakest bill possible.

This, folks, is how power really operates in this country. While the rest of us suckers, who cling to the notion that we still live in a democracy, are dutifully calling our members of Congress about health care reform, the movers and shakers are calling their brokers. And when they’ve done that, they make another campaign contribution or send another lobbyist to the Hill. Is it any wonder that we can’t seem to get a decent bill passed?

New WH Counsel: Sign of Campaign Finance Armageddon?

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 1:02 PM PST

Gregory Craig, the White House counsel, is on his way out. Bob Bauer, the president's personal lawyer, will be taking Craig's place. Bauer, interestingly, is considered an expert in campaign finance law. That's good, because Bauer will need to deal with the fallout when the Supreme Court implodes campaign finance law sometime in the next few months, a senior administration official tells Marc Ambinder. (The relevant case is Citizens United v. FEC, which could open the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending in federal elections.) Here's what the official told Ambinder:

[Bauer's] expertise in election law isn't just relevant so we can write great briefs in litigation. As we enter 2010, having clear rules of the road on what the White House and its staff can and cannot do to help Democratic candidates will become a critical aspect of the White House Counsel's job—and there's no lawyer in America who knows that better than Bob. Such skill is even more critical as we approach 2012—and—here's the wild card—if the Supreme Court does major violence to the campaign finance regulation regime (as most observers expect by June), then deciding how to try to rewrite those laws, or what to do in the wild west regime that will replace current law, will be a critical task.  And who better to have on point than Bob Bauer.

Campaign finance reformers have been trying to promote the idea that an adverse decision in Citizens United might ultimately help their cause—because the resulting deluge of corporate money in elections could create momentum for reform. Until now, that seemed a bit like whistling past the graveyard. But if the administration is already considering "how to rewrite" campaign finance laws in the event that the Supreme Court opens the floodgates, maybe reformers are on to something after all.

AIG's Greenberg Still Unrepentant

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 11:03 AM PST

Former AIG chairman Maurice "Hank" Greenberg paid a visit to the Federalist Society at the right-wing legal group's annual Washington meeting Friday. And the man who spent 27 years at the helm of the insurance giant that nearly brought down the entire American financial system was as unrepentant as ever about any role he might have played in the crisis. On hand (er, phone, actually) as part of a panel discussion on the Wall Street bailout, Greenberg devoted the bulk of his time painting AIG as a victim of government incompetence and favoritism.

By his telling, the government has given AIG pretty shoddy treatment since it first loaned the company $85 billion and took an 80 percent share. Observing that the government doesn't do a very good job of running companies—witness the Post Office—he said he was "puzzled" by how the bailout terms became so punitive and why the government wasn't more interested in helping the company get back on its feet. He wondered how federal officials decided to stick it to AIG and not other companies that then got propped up with money funneled through AIG. "Why is one institution going to be liquidated while others have been guaranteed?" he asked.

To that end, Greenberg advocated the creation of a commission made up of "prominent Americans" (i.e., not members of Congress) who would have subpoena authority and get to the bottom of some of these lingering questions. Greenberg insisted that when AIG was bailed out, the "insurance entities of AIG were very solid," a "national asset." (No matter that back in March, AIG itself told the Treasury Department that it needed even more federal funds because of problems with its life insurance sector, not because of the disasterous credit default swaps coming out of its now-infamous financial products division.) In Greenberg's view, if the government had simply provided guarantees for all those credit default swaps, it would have restored liquidity and there would have been no need to take over the company.

But if the industry lion was hoping for a sympathetic ear from the conservative lawyers assembled in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom, Greenberg must have been sorely disappointed. During the question period, a law student from Washington and Lee got up and demanded to know why AIG deserved any government aid given the way it had behaved and allegations that it had illegally tried to squash competitors. Greenberg said AIG had never been found guilty of anti-trust violations but he conceded that "I happen to agree that bankruptcy might have been a better outcome for everyone." Mostly, though, he stuck to his talking points about AIG as a victim of government caprice and his deisre to learn just who picked the winners and losers in the bailout.

Greenberg has good reason to want the government to work harder to restore AIG to its former greatness rather than sell off its assets. When the company collapsed, he lost the bulk of his vast fortune along with it. Even though he left in 2005, under a cloud of fraud charges, Greenberg was still AIG's largest shareholder when it went down. Presumably he still owns a few of those almost-worthless shares in the company. Still, his Wall Street mindset still prevails. In response to a lawyer's question about whether executive pay limits might be a good idea, Greeberg thought it would be impossible to run a successful company paying people only a measly $200,000 a year, as has been proposed by the Obama administration's "pay czar."

At the end, I asked Greenberg whether he had any remorse or regret about the role that his company played in wrecking the economy. "No," he declared. "I think we had a very good record." And when I asked whether in retrospect there was anything he might have done differently that might have prevented the current financial disaster, Greenberg stuck with his usual defense: It didn't happen on his watch. He claimed that the riskiest activity at AIG took place in the seven months after he departed. "I can't be responsible for what happened after I left," he said.

 

The Deficit

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 9:33 AM PST

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have a sexed-up big-picture story in today's Politico on the Obama administration's plans for cutting the federal deficit. The gist is that the Obama team is going to spend 2010 focusing on slashing the deficit—so much so that the President will focus his State of the Union address in January on the subject. The problem is that most economists agree that when the economy is in recession it needs more spending, not less. So cutting the deficit could be counterproductive, especially if it further depresses the economy and further reduces tax revenues. At the same time, the deficit is an illustration of a very serious problem, as Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, explained this week:

The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services.

The difficulty for the Obama administration lies in the contradiction between the need for deficit spending to stimulate the economy and the unsustainability of deficit spending. The national debt is already at a historically high level as a percentage of GDP, leaving Obama with less room for countercyclical deficit spending than he would otherwise have. It's a bad time to borrow, but it's also a bad time not to borrow. The profligacy of 2001-2008 has put the Obama team in a really tough place.