Mojo - February 2010

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 23, 2010

Tue Feb. 23, 2010 7:00 AM EST

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A US Army Soldier takes a break to arm wrestle an Afghan during a patrol to check on conditions in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 17. Photo via the US Army.

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Nuts: ACORN Cracks Under Pressure

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Conservatives can once again boast of their unqualified success as scapegoaters. Another of ACORN's largest state chapters fell off the organization's tree today, pulled down by the weight of debts, lackluster fundraising, and—of course—right-wing targeting. The left-leaning network of community organizations acknowledged that its New York syndicate has split off from the national headquarters and rebranded itself as New York Communities for Change. It's a possible death-knell for community organizers—and a clarion call for Astroturf reactionary groups.

"This is what Fox has produced," an unnamed source in the New York organization told Politico. "National Acorn and (CEO) Bertha Lewis are continuing doing their thing, but the New York flagship has been forced into this new organization."

The move comes just a month after ACORN's California offices jumped off a similar cliff. And ACORN's national spokesman found himself playing defense, insisting that the organization wasn't dissolving - at least, not "all across the country," not yet.

"Jobs" Bill Headed for Passage

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 6:50 PM EST

Finally, some bipartisanship: Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) joined all but one Democrat present in voting to defeat a GOP filibuster of the Senate's "jobs" bill. The legislation will now move to a final up-or-down vote, scheduled for Wednesday. Jon Chait has the definitive take on why this happened:

It tells you that these [GOP] Senators recognized that the legislation is essentially symbolic, and therefore a good time to burnish their moderate credentials rather than spend political capital to advance their party's agenda.

Exactly. While it's all well and good that Democrats and Republicans could finally get bipartisan agreement on something, a couple billion dollars in payroll tax cuts isn't going to solve the nation's unemployment crisis. At around $15 billion, the so-called "jobs" bill represents around one-tenth of one percent of the total output of the American economy over the year ahead, and less than one-half of one percent of total federal spending over that period. It doesn't get much more symbolic than that.

No Obama Budget Freeze for Prisons

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 4:39 PM EST

In the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate, amid talk of dangerously high deficits and budget freezes, the White House proposes dramatically increasing spending on prisons.

A newly released report from the Justice Policy Institute, titled "The Obama Administration’s 2011 Budget: More Policing, Prisons, and Punitive Policies," analyzes the priorities reflected in the president’s overall spending plans for the Department of Justice in FY 2011 (which begins on October 1, 2010):

The President’s proposed FY2011 Department of Justice (DOJ) budget asks for $29.2 billion. This is on top of $4 billion provided to DOJ through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), much of which will continue to fund activities through 2011 and beyond. Although the budget has some specific allocations for juvenile justice that it had removed last year, it still reduces spending on juvenile justice programs, while allocating hundreds of millions to hire or retain police officers….and increasing federal prison spending.

This continued funding pattern will likely result in increased costs to states for incarceration that will outweigh the increased revenue for law enforcement, with marginal public safety benefits. While "re-entry" programs…will help reduce recidivism, too little funding is targeted towards "no-entry" programs that keep people from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place. As states struggle with tough economic times and burgeoning prison populations, research shows that the most cost-effective ways to increase public safety, reduce prison populations, and save money are to invest in community-based programs and policies that positively impact youth and more substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment services in the community.

In a recent article in USA Today, Kevin Johnson breaks down the proposed increase in direct spending for the federal Bureau of Prisons (which is on top of the funds passed on to states and localities).  As Johnson writes, "the federal government is proposing to dramatically ramp up its detention operations":

The Obama administration’s $3.8 trillion 2011 budget proposal calls for a $527.5 million infusion for the federal Bureau of Prisons and judicial security….The boost would bring the total Bureau of Prisons budget to $6.8 billion….[The DOJ] projects that federal prisons, which now hold 213,000 offenders, will hold 7,000 more by 2011.

Also included in the Justice budget is a proposal to hire 652 additional prison guards and fill 1,200 vacant detention positions, far more than the combined 448 new agents planned for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshals Service.

Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus says the increased prison system funding does not reflect a de-emphasis of national security, only that the Bureau of Prisons "needs the bed space."

Nearly half of the increased BOP funds–$237 million–would pay for "bed space" in solitary confinement cells at a new supermax prison in Thompson, Illinois. This is where the administration proposes to put the detainees  transferred from Guantanamo Bay when (and if) it closes.

Charlie Crist Mans Up

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 3:01 PM EST

The White House meeting between the nation's governors and President Barack Obama had just ended, and a bevy of chief executives was standing at the microphones in front of the entrance to the West Wing. Reporters were tossing questions about budget shortfalls and health care at the govs. Toward the front of the pack was Governor Charlie Crist, the Florida Republican who's in a tough Senate primary contest against Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the state's House of Representatives and a Tea Party darling. One reason this sitting governor might lost the GOP primary to his conservative challenger is that a year ago Crist eagerly supported Obama's stimulus bill and hugged the president when Obama visited Florida.

Governor Crist, I shouted to get his attention, and he turned toward me. Last week, I asked, a number of leading Republicans in Washington claimed that Obama's stimulus has created no new jobs—is that an accurate assessment of what's happened in Florida? Without pause, Crist replied, it is "not the case in Florida." He reported that the stimulus legislation has "created or maintained" 87,000 jobs, including 20,000 education positions, in the Sunshine State. The stimulus was "necessary," he added, for preserving jobs in Florida.

Several reporters near me raised their eyebrows. This was an unambiguous answer—and a direct shot at Washington Republicans, Rubio, and the Tea Party crowd. I followed up: then why are Washington GOPers saying the stimulus hasn't produced any jobs? It's a "political year," Crist said, adding that the stimulus was "important" to the effort to fight unemployment.

Another reporter chimed in: "Any regrets" about accepting the stimulus money? Crist shot back, "I don't apologize for it at all." And in defense of his man-hug of Obama, he explained that he was raised "to respect the presidency of the United States." What about the criticism coming from Rubio for embracing Obama and the stimulus? this other reporter asked. "He's wrong, and I'm right," Crist said defiantly.

That ended this line of inquiry. There was nothing left for Crist to say. He had not tried to weasel out. Even though most political handicappers consider him a goner in the Rubio race—a soon-to-be victim of the Tea Party-ization of the GOP—Crist was not trimming his sails to make nice with the right wing of his party. It was a rare moment. The journalists watching were impressed—though none appeared to believe this stick-to-my-guns approach would benefit Crist in the GOP primary. Later on, a White House reporter remarked to me, "You don't always get a chance to help a politician self-immolate."

Perhaps. But it was encouraging to see a pol not bob and weave when it would be convenient for him to do so. Crist may be standing firm only because at this point he has nothing to lose. Clearly, he realizes his only chance is to take on the Tea Party, not to run scared. Moderate GOPers, if they still exist, can be proud of him.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Sketchy Conservative Health Care Fundraising

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 2:33 PM EST

As Jon Chait warned on Saturday, conservatives are beginning to freak out because they thought they had "won" the health care reform fight and they don't know how to respond now that Democrats are pushing forward. Case in point is the email from a conservative political action committee called RightMarch that I wrote about earlier warning that Obama is "Planning to Push Through Gov't Healthcare TODAY." That's not true, of course. But the saddest thing about this particular email isn't the tone—it's that it appears to be a sketchy fundraising ploy rather than an attempt to mobilize grassroots action. The email offers to send faxes to members of Congress, for which it charges gullible conservatives $19 and up. A few phone calls would be a lot cheaper and would probably make a bigger difference.

Far be it for me to tell conservatives how to spend their money, but RightMarch PAC looks like a pretty poor choice for your political donation dollars. According to filings with the Federal Election Commisssion, the PAC took in over $1 million in the second half of 2009, and spent more than half that—$540,824—on operating expenses. It's not as if they've always spent that kind of cash—in the first half of 2009, the PAC raised $29,358 and spent 29,874.61 on operating expenses. And here's the bottom line: RightMarch PAC says its purpose is to "raise and distribute funds for, to and independently on behalf of conservative candidates, and against liberal candidates, in targeted primary and general federal elections across America." You might think that would mean that it actually gave a significant percentage of its income to candidates. Since RightMarch seems to have given $2,000 to federal candidates in all of 2009, you'd be wrong.

RightMarch is run by a Dr. William Greene, who, according to this New York Times article from 2005, is the president of Strategic Internet Campaign Management—a company that has received thousands of dollars from RightMarch over the years. (He's also supposedly a friend of anti-abortion activist Randall Terry.) Right-wing bloggers have suggested that some of the other companies that appear frequently on RightMarch's disclosure forms—like Virginia-based Response Enterprises—are also associated with Greene. Since the company doesn't appear to have a website or a phone number, it's hard to know for sure. Just another example of conservatives treating their constituents like suckers.

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Ask the White House: Are GOPers Liars?

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 2:27 PM EST

At the White House daily briefing on Monday, I asked press secretary Robert Gibbs a simple question: are Republican leaders liars? I prefaced my query by noting that last week numerous GOPers claimed that the stimulus bill has created no new jobs, yet over the weekend Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted that the stimulus has led to creating or saving 150,000 jobs in his state of California, and on Monday at the White House, Republican Governor Charlie Crist, responding to a question from me, declared that the stimulus had done the same regarding 87,000 jobs in Florida, including 20,000 positions for teachers and educators. So, I put it to Gibbs, do you think those Republicans dissing the stimulus are "purposefully lying."

There was a slight pause, perhaps as he calibrated. Then Gibbs replied, "I don't believe they believe their own statements." That was a polite way of saying, yes. He pointed out that House Republican whip Eric Cantor had isssued a statement asserting that Obama's stimulus had yielded no job creation, yet Cantor had also tried to obtain stimulus funds for a high-speed rail project in Virginia, contending that this particular project would create jobs. How can Cantor reconcile those two remarks? Gibbs asked.

I followed up: if the congressional Republicans say stuff they don't believe, how can the White House work with them on health care reform? With Thursday's health care summit in mind, Gibbs answered, "because the president will be in the room"—meaning that should the Republicans fiddle with the facts at this gathering, Obama will be ready to call them out. By the way, the summit will be open to live television coverage.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

Conservative Health Care Freakout Begins

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 1:13 PM EST

On Saturday, Jon Chait warned that a storm is coming:

[Conservatives'] mustache-twirling bonhomie has started to give way to the realization that the legislative door to health care reform is wide open, and Democrats simply need to walk through it. By no means is it clear that they'll succeed. But I've been waiting for conservatives, filled with hubris at having swept liberalism into the dustbin of history, to wake up to the fact that health care reform is very far from dead, and start to freak out.... 

You can imagine how this feels to conservatives. They've already run off the field, sprayed themselves with champagne and taunted the losing team's fans. And now the other team is saying the game is still on and they have a good chance to win. There may be nothing wrong at all with the process, but it's certainly going to feel like some kind of crime to the right-wing. The Democrats may not win, but I'm pretty sure they're going to try. The conservative freakout is going to be something to behold.

Chait is basically saying that health care reform is "The Play." Conservatives are the Stanford band, and health care reform supporters are the Cal Golden Bears. Behold:

Democrats aren't really any closer to finishing health care reform than they were on Friday, but I'm already starting to see some major freakouts. One example is an email from one of the conservative email lists I'm on, entitled "Obama Planning to Push Through Gov't Healthcare TODAY":

ALERT: Did you think that, because Barack Hussein Obama has called for a "bipartisan healthcare reform summit" on Feb. 25th, that the Democrats were serious about starting over and including the Republicans' ideas in their plans?

WRONG! According to liberal bastion The New York Times, "President Obama will put forward comprehensive health care legislation intended to bridge differences between Senate and House Democrats ahead of a summit meeting with Republicans next week, senior administration officials and Congressional aides said Thursday."

But that’s not all they’re reporting:

Democratic officials said the president’s proposal was being written so that it could be attached to a budget bill as a way of averting a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The procedure, known as budget reconciliation, would let Democrats advance the bill with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority.

So, in other words, Obama is LYING about compromising on his healthcare plans, and Reid and Pelosi are preparing to use a parliamentary trick to ram ObamaCare down the throats of the American people!

[...]

Here's the "trick" that Obama, Pelosi and Reid are planning to use to ram ObamaCare through: it's called "reconciliation". As the Wall Street Journal explains, "House Democrats would pass a series of ‘fixes' to the Senate bill. The Senate would then pass the House reconciliation bill, sending amendments to President Obama to a bill that -- strictly speaking -- didn't exist, because it hadn't yet emerged from the House. The House would then retroactively pass the Senate bill as is."

So by using the "reconciliation" process, the Senate will only need 51 votes to pass their socialized healthcare bill!

Never mind that reconciling differences between House and Senate bills is what the reconciliation process is for. Never mind that it's been used repeatedly to pass major legislation—including crucial health care reforms like the State Childrens' Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and COBRA (the R stands for "reconciliation). Conservatives are convinced that passing legislation by majority vote is bad. (Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., thinks you should need 70 or 80 votes in the Senate to pass health care reform.) So they're freaking out about it.

More Credit Card Fee Madness

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:33 PM EST

First, happy Credit CARD Act day! As I wrote last week, the second phase of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 goes into effect today, cracking down on unfair and predatory practices like universal default and unfair interest rate hikes. You can read more about those changes here [PDF]. Sadly, banks are trying awfully hard to pass along the cost of new regulation to their customers. In my post from last week, I told how a Citi Card customer who contacted us here at MoJo could face a $60-a-year fee for—get this—not charging enough money to her card.

James Kwak, over at Baseline Scenario, heard from a reader with a similar story on how Chase is pleading with its customers keep their overdraft service which consumers can now opt out of thanks to the new legislation. Kwak, who posted Chase's letter to its customer, wasn't surprised:

There's nothing particularly evil about this—banks will no longer be allowed to charge overdraft fees without your consent, and even I will concede that there are some people who might want this service, so now they have to ask for permission. Of course, it's a pretty hard and misleading sell: they focus primarily on the issue of funds availability (deposits may not be available immediately), and they try to frighten you with "an unexpected emergency like a highway tow." If you do get a letter like this and are not sure what it means, remember that the bank will not tell you when you are about to overdraw your account, and it will charge you $34 each time, even multiple times per day, no matter how small the overdraft.

I was interested to note that the bank doesn't even promise that it will cover your overdraft—it says only that it may cover your overdraft, at its discretion. I suppose this makes sense, since they don’t want to cover an overdraft for $100,000, but couldn’t they guarantee it up to some fixed amount? I mean, if this service is supposed to give you peace of mind, how much peace of mind do you get when the bank reserves the right not to cover your overdrafts? [emphasis mine]

For all their convenience, overdrafts can be a nasty, unfair practice; if you calculate the APR from the average overdraft fee, it's more than 10,000 percent. No matter how well Chase or any other bank cloaks the practice is corporatespeak, we're all better off now with the chance to opt out of overdraft fees.

Goldman Hires Bush Crony's PR Firm

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 11:48 AM EST

Yes, billions of dollars in bailouts and bonuses, counterparty fiascos, claims to be "doing God's work," and almost singlehandedly toppling the entire economy of Greece will do quite a number on your public image. For a general public that hardly knew who Goldman Sachs was before the crisis, the name now evokes feelings of disgust and mistrust, of "fat cat" bankers stuffing the pockets in their designer suits with taxpayer dollars in the greatest heist this country's ever seen. Quite simply, Goldman has a massive PR migraine that's only getting worse.

So, the New York Post reports, the firm's fearless, Bronx-born leader, Lloyd Blankfein, did what any rightminded corporate CEO would do: He brought in some PR muscle To spruce up Goldman's image Blankfein turned to Public Strategies, a slick Texas-based firm led by Dan Bartlett, a close confidante to George W. Bush and Karl Rove. From the Post story:

Earlier this month, Goldman clients and Wall Street analysts starting filling out an exhaustive, online questionnaire seeking to pinpoint exactly what people thought of Blankfein's firm. One question wanted survey participants to compare Goldman to other Wall Street banks—and names rivals JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup and Barclays. Respondents were asked to fill in blanks from least favorable to most favorable.

...

"For the first 139 years it wasn't that relevant to us to explain ourselves," Blankfein told Fortune recently. "And now it became very relevant and the press did an important thing for us, they pointed out to us that that was a deficiency in our strategy, not to reveal ourselves...I'm just trying to take pains, which we should have done all along, to make sure that people understand what we do in the world."

Yes, please, Lloyd—do explain to the people what exactly the purpose of a synthetic collaterized debt obligation is apart from a massive casino chip.