Mojo - February 2010

Obama Budgets for Changes to NCLB

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 9:00 PM EST

President Obama's 2011 budget proposals for the Department of Education suggest the president wants to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the main law outlining the federal government's role in public schools. But it's unclear whether the administration can successfully shepherd a reauthorization through this Congress, considering its legislative calendar is already brimming with other reform efforts. 

The budget calls for an additional $3.5 billion in education spending, most of which education secretary Arne Duncan would dole out to school districts that have increased testing standards and enforced teacher accountability. Aside from these proposals and Race to the Top (another competitive grant program Duncan introduced last year that challenges states to write ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing comprehensive education reforms) states receive most of their federal education money through well-worn funding streams like Title I for poor students and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) for students with special needs, formulas that don't leave room to reward districts that are excelling.

NCLB didn't leave much room for reward either. It sanctioned districts whose students were not passing and labeled some 30,000 schools as failures, even if their students' test scores had improved from the previous year. Duncan told reporters in a conference call Monday that these skewed methods of accountability did not reward schools that had, for example, raised the reading proficiency among sixth grade students from a 2nd to a 5th grade level. Instead, NCLB led failing schools to compete in a "race to the bottom" to dumb down standards and get more students to pass. Duncan hopes to replace this broken accountability system with one that measures whether schools are preparing students to graduate high school "college and career-ready," he said, a process that begins by maintaining students' grade-appropriate reading levels in elementary school.

Ambitious plan. So will Obama be able to pass it by year's end?  Not likely said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, in a blog post last week: "One can only wish them well, but reworking this mosterously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as health care." And Finn told the New York Times, "The odds of getting a full-dress re-authorization done between now and August are very very slender."

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"I Have Served With Homosexuals Since 1968"

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:35 PM EST

Some of Obama’s top Defense officials delivered testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, weighing in on the ever-weighty issue of whether or not homos should be allowed to serve in the US military. To no one’s surprise, the issue left the GOP digging their heels in against change, and Democrats generally supporting the idea of ditching "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."  

Senator John McCain started things off on a grumpy note, offering up anecdotal evidence that "numerous military leaders" have told him DADT works. Defense Secretary Gates then read a prepared statement, saying that the question "is not when, but how" the repeal of DADT will occur. Gates said that he’s establishing a panel to study the issue, and that the study will take a year or more to complete.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the most senior uniformed figure in the US military, maintained that getting rid of DADT was the right thing to do, saying, "I cannot escape being troubled in the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity."

McCain loved that, of course, and replied with a demand that Mullen report back with the opinions of other chiefs of staff. Senator Udall (D-Colo.) chimed in, adding: "I think it was a fine senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who used to say 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight.'" Zing! (McCain faces a tough primary battle for his Senate seat in Arizona right now.) Another catty moment, described in Spencer Ackerman’s piece at the Washington Independent:

Some suggested that Mullen was carrying Obama’s water instead of presenting his own advice. "If it was a trial, perhaps we’d raise the undue-command-influence defense," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

That drew Mullen’s ire. "I have served with homosexuals since 1968," the chairman said, raising his voice. “Everyone in the military has… A number of things, cumulatively, for me, got me to this position." 

Well said, highly decorated Admiral who has served with homosexuals for more than four decades. We’re all looking forward to an entire year of this sort of back and forth as the Defense Department studies whether or not it’s prudent to let homosexuals serve—openly—in the armed services. 

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The Paul Volcker Surge

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:03 PM EST

After a spell in the political wilderness, where his financial reform proposals received scant attention, Paul Volcker looks to be fully back in the mix. The former Federal Reserve chairman from 1979 to 1987, Volcker now has the ear of both Obama and the current Fed chair, Ben Bernanke. According to a Bloomberg story today, Volcker met with Bernanke six times—five of which were one-on-one meetings—between January and November 2009; by contrast, Volcker met with Bernanke only once in the year before that. And it's obvious that Volcker has had plenty of contact with the top financial gurus in the Obama administration: After all, the president's push to ban proprietary trading by throwing up a firewall between commercial banks' deposits and their riskier trading operations is being called the "Volcker Rule." 

For the most part, this surge of Paul Volcker's is a good thing. Since Obama took office last year Volcker has been pushing rigorous, important reforms—reining too-big-to-fail institutions, restoring parts of the Glass-Steagall Act—but had clashed with administration officials like National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and hadn't exerted much influence despite his stature as one of the leading economists in the country. A veteran of Beltway economic policy, Volcker also appears to have little patience for powerful lobbyists like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) who support "reform lite." And while Volcker's backing of the Fed to keep its watchdog role overseeing financial institutions and consumer protection may not be best for the country, given how poorly the Fed did that job before the crisis, his rise within the financial reform debate can only improve the odds for a bill that actually limits excessive risk-taking and tries to prevent future crises.

Accountability Time for Contractors?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:01 PM EST

When a federal judge recently tossed out the Justice Department's case against five Blackwater contractors accused of massacring Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, the episode raised troubling questions of accountability—or lack thereof. These questions are by no means new. Jurisdictional uncertainty over crimes committed by contractors overseas has persisted for years, even as the federal government has dramatically ramped up its reliance on military contractors and security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if a trio of Democratic lawmakers have their way, the legal grey area could become black and white.

On Tuesday, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), along with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), introduced bills intended to clarify the legal authority over contractors, who are currently subject to a patchwork of statutes. The legislation expands on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which provides criminal jurisdiction over personnel "employed by or accompanying the armed forces” and primarily applies to DOD employees and contractors. The Blackwater contractors were being prosecuted under MEJA, though their lawyers had argued that the law didn't apply to them since they were on the payroll of the State Department, not the Pentagon. (The case was dismissed not on these grounds, but because the judge concluded that government lawyers had built their prosecutions on statements the contractors were compelled to make when they were debriefed by State Department officials following the shooting. The Justice Department is expected to appeal the decision.) 

Imperiled UBS Threatens Entire Swiss Economy

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:34 PM EST

On Friday I explained why UBS was the only bank that offered to take a hit on its contracts with AIG during the government's backdoor bailout of the ailing insurer. The reason? A looming US investigation of UBS that meant the Swiss banking behemoth was in no position to play hardball. In an interview this weekend, one of Switzerland's justice ministers revealed the extent to which the fate of UBS—and the entire Swiss economy—is again in the hands of the American government.

As Mother Jones reported in November 2008, UBS helped wealthy Americans hide billions of dollars from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in violation of a 2001 agreement signed by the bank promising to identify and document customers with any US sources of income. The agreement was a major departure from historic Swiss banking secrecy laws—one which Swiss courts recently deemed to be illegal. The high court's decision could also prevent UBS from fulfilling its plea deal with the US government, in which it promised to provide more names of US customers with illegal accounts. If UBS fails to live up to its side of the agreement, the bank could face the revocation of its license to operate in America. Now, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf warns, "the Swiss economy and the job market would suffer on a major scale should UBS fail as a result of its license being revoked in the United States."

If there ever was a bank that's too big to fail, it's UBS. It is the biggest bank in Switzerland and—before massive subprime mortgage write-downs and the attention of the IRS scared many of its wealthy customers away—it was the largest provider of high-net worth private banking services in the world. (In an ironic twist, Bank of America has since taken its wealth management crown.) UBS and its chief domestic competitor, Credit Suisse, are six times larger than Switzerland's entire economy—an imbalance reminiscent of the failed banks that decimated the economy and currency of Iceland. Last year the $2 trillion balance sheet of UBS alone was roughly four times the size of the total Swiss output. As Investment International magazine observed at that time, "a UBS 'blow up' would be catastrophic to Switzerland’s financial stability."

The Gitmo Rebellion

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:56 PM EST

It's not unusual to see Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.) complaining about President Barack Obama's conduct of the war on terror. 

But when they're openly joined by two Democratic senators—with more potentially hovering in the wings—that spells trouble for the administration's agenda. On Tuesday morning, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) teamed up with Graham for a press conference to announce a bill that would block funding for Obama's proposal to try 9/11 co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, in civilian courts.

By expressing full support for Graham's measure, Webb and Lincoln are essentially moving into open revolt against the White House's detainee policy. Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection fight in Arkansas this year, said she would be foolish if she didn't listen to her constituents and oppose the 9/11 trials. Webb insisted he was not opposing the trials because they could be held in his home state of Virginia if New York does not prove to be a feasible venue. "I wrote a column on 9/12" calling the conspirators war criminals, he reminded reporters, implying that he has always prefered the detainees to be tried in a military setting.

After the press conference, Graham didn't refute a suggestion from reporters that he also has the votes of Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Washington's Maria Cantwell. Pryor, Cantwell, and all 40 Republicans joined Webb and Lincoln in supporting a similar measure pushed by Graham in early November. The Senate rejected that measure, 55-45. But Graham said he was sure his bill would pass "overwhelmingly" this time around if it ever came up for a vote.

If Graham's gambit succeeds, it would upend the White House's promise to close down Guantanamo Bay. His legislation would require the 9/11 conspirators to be tried in military tribunals at Gitmo. That would make it close to impossible for Obama to close down the prison until after the trials were completed—a process that could take years.  

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The Real News Behind That Pro-Life Super Bowl Ad

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:18 PM EST

By now you’ve read about the upcoming Super Bowl’s least-funny commercial: The Colorado-based para-church Focus on the Family’s 30-second anti-abortion spot, starring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and his mother, Pamela. (If you missed the dust-up, here’s a quick wrap from our Liz Gettelman). As Evan noted yesterday, CBS' decision to run the ad has made it a magnet for controversy, given the network's longstanding policy against airing political ads during the big game (well, unless you count this), and the fact that it rejected an ad for a gay dating site this year. But while Tebow and CBS get most of the attention, there's a much more significant force at play that's gone largely overlooked: The ongoing rift at one of America's most prominent Evangelical organizations.

 

Neither side is saying much, but the basic facts are this: In October, after a years-long transition process, FOF founder James Dobson announced that he would leave the organization this month. Then, in December, Dobson revealed his new set of plans: He was starting a new venture called "James Dobson on the Family" (James Dobson, in addition to having a bizarre aversion to Spongebob, is also, apparently, a verb). This isn't the kind of thing one normally does. As one observer told the New York Times, "I can't think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive." Think Michael Flatley leaving "Riverdance," and multiply it by a lot.

Exploding Boobs: The Next Terrorist Threat?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 10:49 AM EST

If you aren't reading WorldNetDaily, you're really missing out. Today, for instance, the paranoid conservative website ran a big scoop entitled, "MI5 hunting breast implants of death." WND, which is obsessed with the "Muslim mafia," claims that Britain's intelligence service is concerned that British teaching hospitals have churned out Muslim doctors who are now returning to their home countries to outfit female suicide bombers with breast implants that blow up--and not just to a DD cup. WND cites British medical experts who reported back to MI5 that:

"Properly inserted the implant would be virtually impossible to detect by the usual airport scanning machines. You would need to subject a suspect to a sophisticated X-ray. Given that the explosive would be inserted in a sealed plastic sachet, and would be a small amount, would make it all the more impossible to spot it with the usual body scanner."

If WND is right, the breast implants of death are just one more reason the naked full-body scanners the US is scrambling to install in every airport won't make us any safer. Michael Mukasey, please take note.

Oil Industry: We Like Our Handouts!

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 10:05 AM EST

As I noted yesterday, one of the more aggressive elements of Obama's 2011 budget is the proposal to eliminate 12 tax breaks for oil, gas and coal companies, which the administration estimates will raise up to $39 billion in the next 10 years.

"All you have to do is look at the record profits of the oil and gas world in the last several years," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters on Monday in announcing the budget proposal. "In my view, you're going to continue to see a great interest in oil and gas because it's a essential part of our economy today. It's expected that it will be, and I know it will be in the years ahead. And so I think the oil and gas industry will do just fine."

Unsurprisingly, the industry is balking at the possible revocation of government handouts. The Independent Petroleum Association of America said in a statement that the budget request would "strip billions of investment dollars from US natural gas and oil production" and "could cripple the American producers that are pivotal in developing US natural gas and oil."

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard also criticized the elimination of tax breaks, arguing that a "robust U.S. oil and gas industry is essential to the recovery of the nation’s economy." "With America still recovering from recession and one in ten Americans out of work, now is not the time to impose new taxes on the nation’s oil and natural gas industry. New taxes would mean fewer American jobs and less revenue at a time when we desperately need both," said Gerard in a statement.

They might have a point. The outcry about revoking Big Oil's tax breaks came on the same day as ExxonMobil reported the lowest earnings in 7 years -- just $19.4 billion dollars.

Need to Read: February 2, 2010

Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:01 AM EST

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers: