Mojo - December 2009

A TARP Counterfactual

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 1:33 PM EST

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, gave a speech at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday arguing that the GOP's determination to simply obstruct whatever President Obama tries to do is damaging democracy and the institution of Congress.  Much of Hoyer's speech was devoted to listing examples of "times when the minority party has tied its success not to Congress’s failure, but to the shared work of governing—when it has helped to create legislation that still marks our lives" and "the great accomplishments of loyal oppositions that controlled Congress but were willing to work with, instead of block, a president of the other party." One of those "great accomplishments" really stuck out to me:

[E]ven though Speaker Gingrich began his climb to leadership on the strength of obstructionism, at the end of his career in the House he had strong words for Republicans in what he called the "perfectionist caucus": "my fine friends who are perfectionists, each in their own world where they are petty dictators could write a perfect bill.… But that is not the way life works in a free society." I've tried to live by that principle myself: under President Bush, I worked long and hard on intelligence reform with my friend Roy Blunt. And when the global economy faced collapse, it was Democrats who provided the votes for a painful financial rescue that I believe averted disaster.

This brings to mind a fascinating counterfactual. If a Democratic president had been running the country when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the Republicans had held the reins of power in Congress, would something like TARP have been possible?

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Obama's Open Government Move

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 12:43 PM EST

Soon, the public will be able to see how seriously the government is taking President Barack Obama's call for more transparency at executive branch agencies like the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services. A new Open Government directive (PDF) issued by the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday sets a series of definitive deadlines for agencies' transparency moves. But will the deadlines be met?

The new directive, the announcement of which was streamed live on whitehouse.gov, calls for each agency to "identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets" within 45 days and create an open government webpage within 60 days. Perhaps the biggest deadline is in 120 days, when agencies must have an open government plan completed and available to the public. If that doesn't happen, it could raise questions about whether the administration's goals for open government are realistic or achievable.

"In some ways that is the test of how serious the Obama Administration is about transparency," Meredith Fuchs, the General Counsel of the National Security Archive, said in a press release Tuesday morning. "If the White House, OMB, and the heads of the agencies are serious, then they will use their authority to make these changes real."

Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, writes on his blog Secrecy News that the initiative shows "every sign of good faith." But "success is not guaranteed," Aftergood warns:

[T]he exercise of presidential authority is dependent on innumerable acts of compliance by scattered officials any of whom can, whether through disobedience or incompetence, frustrate the implementation of policy.  And the more ambitious the proposed change, the more likely it is to encounter resistance.... In any case, given the directive’s well-defined milestones and deadlines, it will soon be clear whether and to what extent the new openness initiative succeeds.

Whether the agencies will actually follow the administration's instructions is the "most serious question" going forward, says Fuchs, the National Security Archive lawyer:

When President Bush issued a [Freedom of Information Act] executive order in 2007 some agencies took it seriously and other did not. The question is what will happen if some do not. Also, there is not clear funding provided for all of this, so the incentive may be... too ambitious. The public has to be engaged to make sure that deficiencies are brought to light. More importantly, the Administration’s leaders have to be willing to closely monitor implementation.

... The Administration has been talking about these issues for eleven months. We have been telling agencies to look at their FOIA logs and public affairs information requests and start figuring out what the public wants.... So, I do not think it should be too much of a stretch to meet the 45 days deadline for publishing a new high value data set. And, again, the public has to scream if what they come up with is not actually anything useful.

Open government advocates are largely happy for now. But if the administration lets them down, there will be a whole lot of screaming.

No Citizens United Decision Today

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 11:21 AM EST

The Supreme Court released four opinions today, the first of its term. Citizens United v. FEC, the case that could open the floodgates for unlimited corporate advertising in political campaigns, was not among them. Erin Miller at SCOTUSblog has more.

Palin's Latest Ethics Flap

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 6:39 AM EST

Sarah Palin may be gone from the governor's office of Alaska, but the ethical lapses she committed there are not forgotten. Self-proclaimed Alaska watchdog Andrée McLeod, who has filed several ethics complaints against Palin, this week submitted yet another. And with this one, McLeod has a point.

In the complaint sent to the state's attorney general, McLeod notes that this past July an independent inquiry found that Palin had violated state law due to her involvement with a legal defense fund established on her behalf. Thomas Daniel, an attorney retained by the Alaska Personnel Board to investigate an ethics complaint (not filed by McLeod) about the legal defense fund, dubbed the Alaska Fund Trust, reported to the board:

In light of the evidence that the governor expressly authorized the creation of the trust ad the fact the trust website quite openly uses the governor's position to solicit donations, there is probable cause to believe that Governor Palin used, or attempted to use, her official position for personal gain in violation of Alaska Statue 39.52.120(a) [the state's ethics law].

Daniel concluded that contributions to the fund had to be disclosed; the fund was not doing so. He also stated,

I find probable cause to believe that payment of the governor's legal fees by the Alaska Fund Trust will violate the Ethics Act prohibition against a public office accepting gifts intended to influence performance of official duties.

McLeod's complaint notes that in the months since the Daniel report was filed, the state's Personnel Board has taken no action. She adds, "Meanwhile the fund still collects money with absolutely no oversight. Contributions and expenditures have never been made public, even while Palin was a public official and had to comply with public financial disclosure laws." In fact, the website for the Alaska Fund Trust still (as of today) identifies Palin as the "current" governor of Alaska.

Now that Palin is an ex-governor, it could be that the fund's current operations--and Palin's past violations--are not of pressing concern to the state's ethics officials. But her reputation still matters. Whether or not she's a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, she remains a leader of the conservative movement. Pitching her book on Sean Hannity's Fox News show last month, Palin dismissed ethics complaints filed against her as "frivolous things that were thrown our way." But the Daniel report was unambiguous: with her legal defense fund, Palin had violated state ethics laws. As McLeod accurately points out, nothing has been done about that. So far, Palin has gotten away with it.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 8, 2009

Tue Dec. 8, 2009 6:33 AM EST

US Soldiers and an Afghan police officer complete a joint patrol in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan, Nov. 30, 2009. The Soldiers are assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division's 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade Combat Team. (US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez.)

Need To Read: December 8, 2009

Tue Dec. 8, 2009 6:30 AM EST

Today's must reads:

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An Expert Discusses Bringing Gay Troops to Repeal Debate

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 4:54 PM EST

Last week's call for temporary immunity to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for gay soldiers testifying at Congressional hearings for repeal, introduced in a bill by Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, could put more pressure on the Obama administration to end the counterproductive and incredibly expensive Clinton-era compromise. Today I spoke with Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America and senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara, about the latest developments. Read the interview here.

Stupak and the Senate

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 4:50 PM EST

The progressive blogosphere has been making a lot of noise recently about how the big problem for Barack Obama isn't any fault of his own—it's simply that the archaic, undemocratic Senate gets in the way of passing major legislation. John Heilemann has a big article on this theory in this week's New York magazine, but Matt Yglesias probably offered the best distillation of it in a blog post last week:

Somewhere between 90 and 100 members of the United States Senate seem committed to the current supermajority system for passing legislation. The supermajority system could be changed, but it can’t be changed by Obama. And thus to assemble 60 votes, Obama needs to rely on Democrats who represent such states as Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Indiana, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska. These states are all more conservative than the average American state. This makes it, objectively, very difficult to secure 60 votes for a progressive legislative agenda. In the House of Representatives, which is elected in a different way, Obama hasn’t had a major problem securing a majority for a progressive legislative agenda.

I am very sympathetic to this theory. It's probably true that, on balance, getting rid of the filibuster (or the Senate itself) would help progressives not just in the short term, but also down the road. But it's worth remembering that if the Senate didn't exist, Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment to the House bill—which would dramatically reduce the availability of private insurance plans that cover abortion—would be the law of the land. Of course, health care reform would also have already passed. Dumping the Senate would come with some tough trade-offs.

Gitmo Suicides: The Unanswered Questions

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 3:15 PM EST

On the night of June 9, 2006, according to the US military, three separate prisoners in separate cells in the maximum security section of the prison at Guantanamo Bay braided nooses out of their sheets and/or pillowcases, made mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards that they were asleep, hung sheets to block vision into their cells, tied their own feet together, tied their own hands together, stuffed rags down their mouths and throats, hung the noose from the metal mesh of their cell walls/ceilings, climbed up on to their sinks, put the nooses around their necks, released their weight to result in death by strangulation, and hung for at least two hours, completely unnoticed by guards, even though the cells were supposed to be under constant supervision by guards and video monitoring.

The above is a slightly edited version of one of the most disturbing parts of a 58-page report (PDF) on the Guantanamo deaths by students and faculty of the law school at Seton Hall University, released on Monday morning. The study slams the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) inquiry into the incident. As Scott Horton noted in the Huffington Post, "It is not even clear that it would be physically possible for the prisoners to commit suicide consistent with these facts." Here's a list of some big questions that the NCIS left unexplained: 

Iran's Student Protests on Video

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 1:24 PM EST

Protesters gathered at universities in Tehran, Iran, earlier today to voice their discontent with President Ahmadinejad as well as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, unlike the president, does not often face public criticism. The university protesters, chanting "death to dictator," were joined by protesters in surrounding regions. The protests fall on the day of commemoration for three Iranian students killed in 1953.

Though phones were down in Tehran, making it difficult for protesters to coordinate or publicize their activities, and foreign media are banned from the country, Enduring America has great video coverage of the day’s protest:

The police have fired on protesters, exiled Iranian opposition leaders in neighboring countries told the BBC earlier today. The BBC also reported one especially ironic twist: as protesters filled the streets, a round-table discussion on student loyalty was broadcast on state television.