Mojo - January 2010

Ross Douthat and Jonathan Rauch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 5:21 PM EST

In his New York Times column from Monday, Ross Douthat argues that President Barack Obama overreached by pushing for comprehensive health care reform. (Mark Oppenheimer profiles the conservative wunderkind in the latest issue of Mother Jones.) Douthat says that liberals should blame their heroes—FDR, for example—for creating a state so large that it's impossible to reform:

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

That’s a quote from Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working,” a book that should be required reading for Democrats as they contemplate their predicament this week. First published amid the collapse of Clintoncare, and then reissued after the failure of the Gingrich Revolution, Rauch’s analysis makes mincemeat of the popular theory that sinister “special interests” are to blame for derailing reforms the common man wholeheartedly supports.

Instead, he suggests that sweeping reforms are difficult because we’re all special interests, in one sense or another. We all benefit from something (or many things) the government does, and so we all have an incentive to resist dramatic changes to the way Washington spends money.

What's missing from Douthat's analysis of Rauch is the fact that on Saturday (two days before Douthat's column appeared), Rauch offered a guarded endorsement of the Senate's health care reform bill. "It could be much better," he says (true), and "there is plenty to worry about," (also true), but "Taken together, [the bill's] measures could set in motion a virtuous cycle." (You can read Rauch's column and judge for yourself whether that's true.) On Monday, Douthat took to his blog to note Rauch's endorsement of the Senate bill. "[I]t’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving," Douthat wrote. But he didn't explain why he didn't mention it in his print column. If the endorsement wasn't mentioned because Douthat didn't see it until after his column went to press, then Douthat should say that. If Douthat knew about Rauch's position but decided not to mention it in print, he should explain why he came around to the idea that "it's only fair" to mention it.

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The Liberal Plot to Save California

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:19 PM EST

Even before last week's progressipocalypse, there was a growing sentiment among those on the left that the American political process had some serious mud in its tires. And not just in Washington, either. Perhaps nowhere is democratic decay more pronounced than in MoJo's home base of California.

The state's problems have been well documented (here's a helpful introduction), but no single element has been more problematic than Prop 13, the 1978 constitutional amendment which stipulates that any tax-raising measure requires a virtually unattainable two-thirds majority in Sacramento. With revenues no longer keeping pace with the state’s needs, the cash-strapped government has been forced to slash essential services and issue I.O.Us to creditors. But help may finally be on the way: University of California-Berkeley professor George Lakoff, a linguist who was once dubbed "the father of framing" by the New York Times Magazine, is pushing to effectively repeal Prop 13 via a referendum this November.

"The linguistics is interesting," Lakoff told me after a recent event in San Leandro. "When you say 'supermajority' it sounds like it's more democratic, when it's actually anti-democratic. It's that little twist on language that's there, and I think people had no idea about the reality of what was happening—that this is the only state in the union where there was total rule by a conservative minority."

The Best Congress Lobbying Can Buy

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:11 PM EST

K Street's federal lobbying reports were due last week, and OpenSecrets is back with some initial numbers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent the most on lobbying federal lawmakers, increasing its spending by 58% from 2008 as it stepped up efforts to defeat climate change and health care legislation. $79.2 million—more than half of its $144.5 million in 2009 lobbying expenditures—were made in the final three months of the year.

The health care debate also intensified lobbying efforts. PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group, spent $26 million and Pfizer, Amgen, and Eli Lilly spent a combined $45 million. That's a lot of money, and so far it seems to have worked. The reform bill has stalled with the election of senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Senator Chris Dodd recently proposed taking a break from the issue. While insurance and pharmacutical companies increased their lobbying bucks, AARP dropped its spending by nearly 25% and SEIU increased its lobbying dollars only modestly, by 8% (about $200,000).

Energy companies also poured money into lobbying as Congress dithered over cap-and-trade legislation. From 2008 to 2009, Chevron upped spending by 60%, ConocoPhillips by 114%, and BP by 53%.

The OpenSecrets report doesn't delve into lobbying numbers from the big banks, but The Hill points out that during the financial crisis in 2009, eight of the nation's largest banks spent nearly $26 million lobbying lawmakers. On the whole, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup decreased or maintained their lobbying sums from 2008 to 2009. Bank of America, however, began "pouring in more money" during the fourth quarter, reports McClatchy. Lobbying sums from the financial services sector are only expected to grow as industry groups intensify their opposition to impending  financial regulation.

The Haitian Diaspora

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:00 PM EST

On Friday, former Bush adviser Elliott Abrams took to the Washington Post op-ed page to urge the international community to open its doors to a "Haitian diaspora." Mass emigration could help stabilize the earthquake-ravaged country, Abrams argued. But conservative commentors bred on NIMBY fervor have responded to Abrams' piece with racist quips (blacks in the US already commit rape, assault and murder at a per capita rate that is over 7 times that of non-blacks) and worries about the cost of immigration (The democrats are so stupid. Real unemployment is over 20%). All this despite the fact that Abrams is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who served under Reagan and Bush. The full column is available here. Here are the highlights:

"Rebuilding" and "recovery" would merely take Haiti, this hemisphere's poorest country, back to where it stood before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Surely, our goal is to do better[!!!] We must increase aid but also allow Haitians to help themselves, and there is no way they can do that sitting in a devastated nation. A substantial number of Haitians must be allowed to move to richer countries—including ours.

Haiti has approximately 9 million citizens, and 1 million to 2 million Haitians live outside their country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half a million people born in Haiti live in the United States, and estimates put several hundred thousand in Canada and as many as 100,000 in France. Those migrants send home $1.9 billion in remittances—double the official aid flows and equal to 30 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product.

A larger Haitian diaspora would be a far better base for the country's economic future than aid pledges that may or may not be met. If several hundred thousand more Haitians were able to migrate, those Dominican, Honduran or Salvadoran numbers suggest that remittances to Haiti would give its economy a huge and continuing jolt.

This would require Canada, France and the United States—the First World countries with the largest Haitian diaspora communities—to adopt a different and more liberal immigration policy toward Haiti. Canada has already stepped up, expediting immigration applications from Haitians with family members living there. Canada's immigration minister noted that "we anticipate there will be a number of new applications, which we will treat on a priority basis."

Cue the relief. Abrams offers a proposal for rebuilding Haiti that isn’t all awash in an obstacle course of dehumanizing logisitics. Yes, the U.S. economy is mired in debt and unemployment is high, but people are dying and are in need of international help. Let the Haitians come.

KBR Calls Jamie Leigh Jones A Liar

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:38 PM EST

Ever since its contract employee Jamie Leigh Jones went public with allegations that in 2005, she was drugged and gang raped by some of her co-workers in Iraq and then detained in a storage container, KBR/Halliburton has fought her efforts to sue in a public courtroom. Jones had been forced to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement as part of her employment contract, which required her to bring any work-related claims before a private arbitrator hired by KBR rather than a jury. Jones fought the agreement and in September, prevailed in one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country. Her story persuaded Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to pass legislation to ban defense contractors from using arbitration agreements in cases of sexual assault.

But last week, KBR signaled its intention to continue fighting Jones, no matter how bad it makes the company look. On Jan. 19, it petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing Jones to press her case in a civil court rather than in arbitration. Among its many arguments in favor of a high court hearing: that Jones is a relentless self-promoter who has "sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress." In its petition, KBR is clearly miffed about the Franken Amendment, which it credits Jones with getting passed. KBR also suggests that much of Jones' story is fabricated. The company says in a footnote, "Many, if not all, of her allegations against the KBR Defenandants are demonstrably false. The KBR Defendants intend to vigorously contest Jones's allegations and show that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable."

It's a curious argument to make in a petition asking to keep the case proceedings confidential (a benefit of mandatory arbitration that KBR claims many assault victims really appreciate). After all, if KBR has been wrongly accused in such public forums as Congress and the media, wouldn't it be better off fighting the charges someplace it could be publicly vindicated? And if Jones' story is really false, why has KBR waited five years to respond? KBR must be pretty worried that lots of other women are getting in line to sue now that Jones has made it easier for them, a potentially expensive disaster. Threatening to disparage an alleged rape victims seems more scare tactic rather than good legal strategy. But KBR's legal strategy has been pretty loony from the get-go. Rather than try to defend an indefensible arbitration system in a case with a compelling victim, KBR would have done far better to simply pay Jones to shut up and go away a long time ago, before she won Al Franken's heart. At this point, even if it wins the court battle, the company is going to lose the PR fight.

 

Why Make Campaign Contributions?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:08 PM EST

In the video below, Linda McMahon, the WWE CEO who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Connecticut, offers a remarkably candid explanation for her history of political contributions to Democrats:

In the video, McMahon explains that she donated to Democrats not because she supported their political agenda, but because she wanted to promote the interests of her business. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of candidates accepting donations made out of pure self-interest, because we tend to want campaign contributions to be premised on genuine support for a politician and/or his or her political positions. This also gets at the heart of the problem with the recent Supreme Court decision opening up elections to unlimited amounts of corporate money.

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The Chamber's 2009 Lobbying Tab

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:04 PM EST

National Journal compiled the stunning graph below from the lobbying expenditures for the fourth quarter of 2009, which were submitted last week. The groups that traditionally devote the most money to lobbying on health care spent roughly the same as they did in 2008. But there was one major exception: the US Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber dropped a total of $123.3 million on lobbying in 2009, compared to $62.3 million in 2008. Of course, it's important to note that the Chamber wasn't just lobbying on health care. They've been actively campaigning against a number of key issues on the Democratic agenda this year, including climate change legislation, financial reform, and the Employee Free Choice Act. But still, the image is impressive:

Unopinionated Media

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:33 PM EST

One of my pet peeves is the idea that the news reporting of the New York Times, the Washington Post, et. al. is utterly free of bias or opinion. That attitude—which you saw in Times reporter Peter Baker's complaints about the addition of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post to the White House print pool—is just infuriating. Even a casual perusal of the Times or the Post (or, for that matter, the more right-leaning Wall Street Journal) will turn up examples of reporters and/or editors injecting their own thoughts or opinions into stories. And even the cleanest of stories is still affected by the reporter's decisions: who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources. Anyway, today's example is a story in the Times about Obama's plans for his State of the Union address, which is scheduled for Wednesday. Describing the administration's new economic recovery proposals, the reporter writes:

Such programs are, notably, much less far-reaching than Mr. Obama’s expansive first-year agenda of passing an economic recovery package, bailing out the auto industry, overhauling the health care system, passing energy legislation and imposing tough new restrictions on banks. That agenda has left him vulnerable to criticism that he is using the government to remake every aspect of American society.

I added the emphasis there, but that sentence sticks out anyway. It's hilariously broad—"every" aspect of American society? It's totally unattached to any sourcing or evidence. Who are these critics? Do they have names? If "Republicans" or "Tea Party activists" are claiming that Obama is using government to remake American society, readers should know that. Just saying that Obama is "vulnerable to criticism" without saying where that criticism is coming from gives the claim a credibility it doesn't deserve. Does America society seem "remade" to you?

The entire article is problematic as "straight news" because the reporter is arguing that Obama is moderating his policy positions to appeal to the political center. Never mind that White House officials explicitly deny this premise. (White House officials have been known to lie, of course.) The bottom line is that the reporter is making a call about what the truth of the matter is. Breaking news: that's an opinion. Just because I happen to think it's a correct opinion doesn't make it a fact. The article should have had an "analysis" tag. Or maybe the Times should drop the act and just admit that it's doing the same thing that TPM is—just with a centrist bias instead of a liberal one.

Starve the Poor

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 11:52 AM EST

Poor people are like stray dogs and cats, says South Carolina’s Republican Lt. Governor, Andre Bauer. If you feed, them, they’ll just come back for more–and worse still, they’ll multiply. That’s why it’s a bad idea to give them free food or other forms of public assistance. 

At a forum in Greeneville on Saturday, Bauer, who is running for governor, told the crowd:

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.

You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.

In a later interview with the Columbia, S.C. newspaper The State, Bauer "said he could have chosen his words more carefully," but that doesn’t change the fact that "South Carolina needs to have an honest conversation about the cycle of government dependency among its poorest residents."

November Looms

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 11:14 AM EST

Imagine that nine months from now, all of your neighbors got to vote on whether you should keep your job. Even if you thought you would win that vote, it would definitely be on your mind—a lot.

That's how members of Congress—especially Democrats—are feeling right now. In nine months, they could be out of a job. Fear is one reason that Dems are balking at the prospect of pushing through health care reform. And the way the November elections are shaping up, it looks like Dems are right to be worried. The big election news today is that Beau Biden, Delaware's attorney general (and the son of Vice President Joe Biden) won't run for his Dad's old Senate seat. That means Mike Castle will probably win the seat. Castle is a Republican member of the House who is the state's most popular politician. Castle has been winning statewide elections in the First State since the Reagan era, and he'll be a heavy favorite to win in November.

The other big election-related news for today is a Rasmussen poll out of Indiana that shows Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) leading Evan Bayh, the incumbent Democratic Senator, by 3. The race is already on election expert Nate Silver's takeover radar, even though Pence hasn't announced he will run.

Between the Bayh and Biden news, the Democrats look increasingly likely to risk losing control of the Senate. North Dakota, where Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring, looks like a near-lock for GOP Governor John Hoeven. Delaware looks like a lock for Castle. Democratic incumbents are also in serious trouble in Nevada (Harry Reid), Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Pennsylvania (onetime GOPer Arlen Specter), and Colorado (appointed Sen. Michael Bennet). If Republicans can sweep those four races, win the two near-locks, pick up the open seat in Illinois (where popular Rep. Mark Kirk is running), beat Bayh in Indiana, and beat Barbara Boxer in California and get Joe Lieberman to switch allegiances, they'll have control of the Senate. Right now, all of those tasks look achievable. But even in the best cycles, it's hard to get everything to go your party's way. Nate Silver puts the odds of the Republicans getting to 50-50 or beyond at a bit less than 15 percent. That seems about right. But unless the national environment changes, the Dems are definitely set to lose a bunch of seats—and we haven't even talked about the House of Representatives yet.

So is there any hope for the Democrats and President Barack Obama's agenda? Tom Jensen of PPP, a polling firm, thinks they might have a shot at salvaging a few seats if they run anti-establishment candidates in the open-seat races: