Mojo - February 2010

Obama's Stealth Entitlement Commission

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 1:33 AM PST

Less than a month after the Senate rejected a proposal for a bipartisan entitlement commission, President Obama has created his own version by executive order. It is not, of course, called an “entitlement commission”–that unsavory term has been banished from the political lexicon, since it clearly frightens the geezers. Instead, it is called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. (Who wouldn’t support that?) The shorthand names are the “deficit commission” and the “debt panel.” This last term is remarkably similar to the much-maligned “death panels”–which seems appropriate, since its primary purpose is to pull the plug on old-age entitlements. Despite protestations to the contrary, the commission exists primarily to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The commission's slant is evident from the choice of its two co-chairs: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a long-time foe of entitlements, and Erskine Bowles, the middle- right former Clinton chief of staff. The rest of the 18-member commission will include 6 Republican and 6 Democratic members of Congress, and four more members named by Obama. They are supposed to make a report and recommendations to the president in December, after the fall elections, and Obama is expected to forward the recommendations to Congress.

In the best-case scenario, Congress will do the same thing it has done with all of Obama’s other proposed reforms–i.e. nothing. Because if it acts at all, it will almost certainly decide to pay down the deficit at the expense of the social safety net. While Social Security may be the proverbial "third rail" of politics, the other debt-reducing options--raising taxes on the rich, or making corporations pay their fair share--will be seen as even more deadly in the current political climate.

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Troops Liking Gays More Than Usual

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 5:19 PM PST

When Admiral Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, blew everybody's mind this month by advocating an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," it was easy to be skeptical. Perhaps you suspected, like John McCain and Ted Nugent, that Mullen wasn't speaking for the military's rank-and-file members. After all, the all-volunteer force isn't widely recognized as a progressive institution.

That may be changing, though. On Wednesday, Military Times released results of a services-wide poll that showed officers and enlisteds across all four branches are more accepting of gays in their ranks, and less comfortable than ever with DADT. That gels with today's anecdotal story that no subordinates are calling Mullen out on DADT in his occasional Q-and-A sessions with them.

American Blitzkrieg

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 12:20 PM PST

Remember the 100 hours of combat that made up the first Gulf War, the mere weeks it took for Kabul to fall in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, or the "shock and awe" wave of air attacks that led off the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed by the 20-day blitzkrieg-like campaign that left American troops occupying Baghdad?  Those were the days when, as retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore reminds us, the civilians in the Bush Pentagon thought they were the masters of lightning war. Now, skip almost seven years, and in Afghanistan the US military has just launched the largest campaign since the invasion of 2001. Fifteen thousand US, British, and Afghan troops have been dispatched to take Marja, a single, modest-sized, Taliban-controlled city of 80,000 in one of more than 700 districts in Afghanistan, many under some degree of Taliban control or influence. How the time frame for success has changed.

As the Americans went in, Marine Commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson was already warning that it might take up to 30 days, longer than it took to capture Baghdad, just to clear Marja of hidden explosives and, despite overwhelming power arrayed against perhaps a few hundred Taliban guerrillas, the fighting in the town has gone on relatively steadily for days. What, in 1991, 2001, and 2003 was the swift claim of total victory is now a long-haul campaign, according to American military sources, to blunt Taliban success (or, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, to "degrade the capability of the Taliban") and so, evidently, bring the enemy in a chastened state to the negotiating table before an American drawdown begins.

As for timelines, US officials now talk about the combat portion of the Marja campaign being but the beginning of a full-scale, militarized version of nation-building on a local level. Think of it as city- or district-building, and the process includes (we're told by the US war commander with some pride) the unpacking of an imported "government in a box" -- the governing and security forces of Hamid Karzai's central government -- and the launching of a well-funded, local reconstruction program to win "hearts and minds." As a result, the test of success is now considered to be months down the line, and that's if the Marja campaign doesn't turn out to be a classic counterinsurgency quagmire.

The story of how Pentagon strategists and the US military went from being the masters of war to a force of would-be long-haul city-builders in the backlands of Afghanistan is a strange one indeed, made stranger yet by the bizarre detour they took through modern German military lore.

Can Gays Be Conservative?

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 11:42 AM PST

The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute held a policy forum yesterday called "Is There a Place for Gay People in Conservatism and Conservative Politics?" The panel of lively experts included Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic’s Daily Dish blog; Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage; and Nick Herbert, a Conservative British MP with the wonderfully chilling title "Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs." 

You'll find audio and video of the event here. Though it starts a little slow, things heat up a few minutes in, when Sullivan and Gallagher start to butt heads like a pair of Rocky Mountain rams (on the topic of gay marriage, naturally). Also discussed: adoption, whether today's Republican party is truly conservative (Sullivan maintains it isn't), and the inclusion of transgender people in conservative politics.

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Fiore Cartoon: Bipartisan Brawl

Thu Feb. 18, 2010 11:20 AM PST

More than a year into office, Obama still believes he can win the bipartisan fight. Can he successfully take down the lobbyists, Blue Dogs, and Republicans in the ring?

Watch Mark Fiore speculate in the cartoon below:

Brother, Can You Spare a Doubloon?

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 10:59 AM PST

If Republican state Rep. Mike Pitts has his way in South Carolina, your money will be no good there. Or probably anywhere else. Pitts is taking anti-Obama fervor to its illogical extreme with a proposed law that would ban anyone in the state from accepting US Federal Reserve notes as legal tender. In place of the Benjamins, Pitts would have his fellow citizens trade only in gold or silver coins. Which should thrill Glenn Beck’s remaining advertisers, at least.

"The Germans felt their system wouldn't collapse, but it took a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread in the 1930s," Pitts told CBSNews.com. "The Soviet Union didn't think their system would collapse, but it did. Ours is capable of collapsing also," he added, apparently unaware that unilaterally banning the federal currency would be a pretty quick way to collapse the savings of all South Carolinians.

It's not clear how closely connected Pitts is to any Tea Party groups, but he's certainly doing their bidding, and not just in advocating a gold (and silver) standard.

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Fixing the Government

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 9:20 AM PST

How can Congress make the government work better? The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has released a list of a dozen solid ideas:

  1. Pass Whistleblower Protection Law
  2. Create an Independent Audit Agency
  3. Improve Economic Recovery Efforts
  4. Put the Teeth Back in Financial Regulatory Agencies
  5. Uncover the Hidden Costs of Privatizing Government
  6. Ensure Taxpayers Get Their Fair Share of Revenues from Royalty Collection
  7. Increase Government Accountability and Transparency
  8. End Wasteful Defense Spending
  9. Make Government Watchdog Organizations More Accountable
  10. Drag the Nuclear Complex Out of the Cold War, and Ensure Oversight of Lab Contractors
  11. Disclose Conflicts of Interest in Scientific Research
  12. And of Course: Fix the Broken Federal Contracting System

My favorite idea of the bunch is probably the second one, an independent audit agency. The great thing about spending more money on auditors is that auditors catch enough waste and fraud that the increased funding tends to pay for itself, plus some. But government auditors are too dependent on the agencies and departments they're supposed to be monitoring. "As a result," POGO explains, "auditors' findings have been ignored or altered, and in some cases have resulted in retaliation or demotion." An independent audit agency wouldn't have that problem. It would be respected—and feared. And when it comes to worrying about being audited, putting a little fear into government agencies is probably a good thing.

Anyway, the whole list is worth checking out—especially if you're a member of Congress looking for some good reforms to support.

GOP Goes Solo on Financial Reform

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 8:04 AM PST

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), whose financial-reform negotiations with Senate banking committee chair Chris Dodd (D-CT) broke down recently, is crafting a Republican version of financial reform with other GOP senators on the banking committee, Bloomberg reported today. The ranking member on the banking committee, Shelby had previously led financial-reform talks with Dodd, but those talks ended with an "impasse" between the two lawmakers. (Dodd has proceded with the talks with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) since the schism.) Some attributed the breakdown to Shelby's opposition to a standalone Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would oversee financial products, like subprime mortgages, and would consolidate consumer protection in a single independent agency.

Shelby's new, GOP-only reform efforts, Bloomberg reported, would create a consumer protection division within an existing bank regulator, not a standalone agency. Shelby aides also told Bloomberg that the senator's version of financial reform would protect taxpayers from the cost of unwinding too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Also getting a look in Shelby's financial reform would be a consolidated bank regulator, an idea that's gaining steam in Dodd's financial-reform plans as well. Aides to Shelby said a lot of the details have yet to be ironed out, but that talks had been ongoing for a couple of months now.

Pelosi, Newsom Target GOP on Stimulus Anniversary

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 6:00 AM PST

A year after the stimulus package surged through congress, it has fallen short in a few key areas, including capping unemployment at the projected 8.5 percent, increasing transparency, and impacting marginalized communities. But as Kevin Drum points out, it's difficult to claim (based on facts, at least) that the recovery act has been a complete failure. 

That doesn't stop congressional republicans like House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and shiny new freshman Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass). In a press release Tuesday, Boehner criticized the "dismal performance of the 'stimulus.'" And last week, Brown told reporters that the stimulus "didn't create one new job," a claim that fact-checkers were quick to refute.

Speaking at an event celebrating the one year anniversary of the stimulus bill yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom rebuked lawmakers who downplay the recovery act's impact for political gain. "For people like Scott Brown to come out of the gates saying that is insulting to the intelligence of the American people," said Newsom. "It's an offensive statement, it's laughable on the surface, and it absolutely holds no weight in terms of foundation of fact."

But in the past year, the Obama administration's method for tracking how many jobs have been created or saved by the stimulus has been consistently unclear. Early on, the White House was accused of claiming to create new jobs in imaginary districts, and overstating the impact of part-time jobs. The government's stimulus watchdog called the early numbers "riddled with inaccuracies."

Senate Bank "Super Regulator" Gains Steam

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 5:45 AM PST

The Senate's plan to create a "super regulator" through its financial reform package appears to be gaining momentum in Congress and the White House. The new watchdog, which would actually be a council of regulators, would be led by the Treasury Secretary and would assume responsibility for monitoring systemic risk in the financial markets, i.e., when a particular bank or several them become so interconnected and powerful that failure would pose a threat to the entire economy. The super-regulator plan, the New York Times reports, has a fair amount of support on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, including backing from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). The details on the council are still fuzzy at this point as to who'd be on the council, but hopefully there will be updates on that soon.

A main point of contention with the super-regulator plan is that it would strip the Federal Reserve of much of its regulatory and systemic-risk powers, a move that's not surprisingly drawn the ire of the Fed's leaders and allies. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) disagreed with giving away the Fed's bank oversight powers—which, as it's been widely reported, the Fed made scant use of—saying the Fed deserves to keep its bank-regulating role. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said in October, however, that he supported a Treasury-led regulatory council, stressing the importance of moving "from an institution-by-institution supervisory approach to one that is attentive to the stability of the financial system as a whole," despite the consequences it would have on the Fed's role in watching over banks' products and practices.

The council of regulators proposal first surfaced in negotiations last summer, when the idea was first floated by the White House and the Treasury. That proposal, however, reserved far less power for the council—"You don't convene a committee to put out a fire," Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in June—but later conceded that some kind of council could advise the Fed and have a more complimentary role in bank oversight. Those previous talks—like so many other subjects—fell by the wayside as health-care reform took over the Senate's deliberations, but bits and pieces of those earlier negotiations are now resurfacing.

Still, as was the case in last summer's debate, the fine print with these new super-regulator talks needs to be ironed out, like whether the council would report to Congress and issue reports and whether it would draw on other agencies like the SEC. And speaking of the SEC, the new council is likely to have the backing of people like SEC chair Mary Schapiro and FDIC chair Sheila Bair, who backed the earlier proposal in July of last year. Perhaps they see this council as a chance for them to extend their jurisdiction and clout—so of course they're going to support it. Which raises the question: If what lawmakers fear is the fragmented, do-nothing approach to financial regulation, will creating a glorified committee made of a bunch of different regulators really make much of a difference?