Mojo - April 2010

Will the Dems Go It Alone On Immigration?

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 2:35 PM EDT

The Senate leadership is planning to introduce a summary outline of an immigration bill shortly before 6 p.m. on Thursday, one day after circulating a draft to advocacy groups. The framework—whose existence I reported earlier this week and which is spearheaded by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—seems to have been written with the intention of attracting support from moderates on both sides of the aisle. But if Dems can't get Republicans to sign on, will they go it alone?

According to Roll Call, "the package would require that a series of new border security benchmarks be met before broader immigration reforms are enacted—including a legalization process for illegal immigrants.” This two-step process seems pitched directly at those Republicans—chief among them Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who’ve demanded that the federal government secure the border first before tackling other immigration reforms. (Graham had been working with Schumer on a bipartisan immigration bill, but he turned on the Democrats after news that immigration might move ahead of climate legislation, which he’s also working on.) The rest of the Democrats’ draft outline adheres closely to the basic principles of the Schumer-Graham plan, including stricter rules about hiring illegal immigrants and expanded visa programs for high-tech and low-skilled immigrant workers.

Praising the draft for offering many "very positive developments," Mary Giovagnoli, head of the Immigration Policy Center, said there were "not any surprises" in the proposal. "It's designed so that Graham can have a seat at the table, if he wants to take it." Some Republican proponents of immigration reform were also enthusiastic. "I think conservatives can agree with many of the principles of this proposal," Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official and a fellow with the Latino Project for Conservative Principles, said in a conference call Thursday afternoon. "We would love to see a bill this year."

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Shelby's Finance Bill Betrayal

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

On the opening day of debate over legislation that would rewrite the rules of the financial markets, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) all but disavowed the bill, claiming it wouldn't fix anything—and would in fact hurt the US economy. Here's why that's shocking: Shelby, the top GOP negotiator on financial reform, has been working on the bill with his counterpart, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), for more than three years. Dodd and Shelby have been engaged in grueling, closed-door negotiations for months.  No Republican has more invested in the bill than Shelby. 

Yet today on the Senate floor, Shelby pretty much eviscerated the measure, while a red-faced and anxious-looking Chris Dodd sat across the aisle from the Alabama senator. "This bill threatens our economy," Shelby said. He added that the bill would leave taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts; the derivatives provisions would impair the economy; a new consumer bureau would stifle consumer lending; and a proposed Office of Financial Research, which would gather financial data used to predict future financial crises, would pry into Americans' lives and violate their civil liberties.

After Shelby finished his opening remarks, Dodd replied tepidly, half-jokingly, "Other than what you just heard from my colleague in Alabama, he likes the bill." It's doubtful whether Dodd actually believes that; anyone who heard Shelby's remarks doesn't. Does this mean all those months of talks between Dodd and Shelby were for naught? Possibly. Are Democrats and Republicans back at square one on financial reform? Sure looks like it.

Meanwhile, In Europe...

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Europe is in trouble. Global financial markets were in turmoil on Wednesday, propelled by fears that Greece could default on its debts—and that the problem could then spread to larger economies, including Spain's and Italy's. "We again find ourselves approaching the point when the financial sector will scream: rescue us all or face global economic collapse," warned Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. "The markets came close to a total meltdown on Wednesday," one senior banker told the Financial Times.

By Thursday morning, things still looked grim, despite a successful debt issue by the Italian government. Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of PIMCO, the giant bond investment company, published an op-ed in the FT warning that a Greek default seems almost inevitable. "The Greek debt crisis has morphed into something that is potentially more sinister for Europe and the global economy," El-Erian wrote. Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, thinks a default is "all too easy to imagine," and worries about what could happen to Spain, Portugal, and Italy "if Greece is in effect forced out of the euro." Krugman, like Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, has decided to "go hide under the table."

Meanwhile, the projected cost of a Greek "bailout"—which many experts think won't work, anyway—has skyrocketed from €45 ($60 billion) to €120 ($159 billion). That would make it the largest "rescue" of a country ever. It would also begin to drain the cash of the International Monetary Fund, which received $750 billion in new funding from the world's 20 biggest economies just last year. That could hamper the IMF's ability to intervene if the Greek crisis spreads to Portugal, Ireland, or Spain, which has an economy five times the size of Greece's. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a onetime IMF employee who is running for President Barack Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois, has called for congressional hearings on the fund's ability to deal with Europe's problems.

Kirk is right to be worried. As Salmon points out, national debt crises are inextricably linked to banking crises. "The world has never seen an insolvent country with solvent banks, and Greece won’t be the first," Salmon argues. The banking system is interconnected and interdependent. If the debt crisis spreads, Spanish, Irish, and even Swiss and German banks could be in trouble. That could spell problems for the American financial system and the fragile economic recovery.

Crunch time for Europe is rapidly approaching. Greece has to pay bondholders some €8 billion ($10.6 billion) by May 19, and its credit rating, reduced to junk status on Tuesday, is too low to effectively borrow that kind of money from private lenders. So Greece's only hope is to reach a deal with the IMF soon. Another big test for the Eurozone will come next Thursday, when Spain hopes to sell around €3 billion ($4 billion) in bonds. If it has trouble auctioning them off, the crisis could come to a head. The Economist says the European Union (especially the big economies) have to act quickly and work with the IMF to reach a deal on the Greek debt as soon as possible. Will ASAP be soon enough?

Goldman's All-Star Lobbying Squad

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

All-star, that is, if you're rooting against comprehensive financial regulatory reform and don't want Congress to rein in excessive bonuses, risky speculating, and financial chicanery. On the day the Senate is slated to begin debating its Wall Street overhaul, the Washington Post sheds some light on the lobbying crew Goldman Sachs has assembled to fight reform and make sure whatever changes the Senate wants don't damage the firm's bottom line. Their lobbying team looks like a who's-who of financially-connected politicos with ample connections throughout Washington. Consider it the Yankees—or, if you're a soccer fan like me, the Real Madrid—of financial lobbying, the best money can buy.

Leading Goldman's lobbying shop is Michael Paese, a former aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the powerful chairman of the House financial services committee. Frank's committee largely crafted the House's version of financial reform legislation, and will play a huge role in reconciling the House and Senate's bills likely later this spring. Frank, the Post reported, banned Paese from lobbying his committee for two years, just as the chairman more recently banned a former aide, Peter Roberson, who left the committee to lobby for the derivatives industry.

Filling out Goldman's lobbying roster are more familiar names like Dick Gephardt, the populist former Democratic majority leader turned Big Finance shill. Harold Ford Jr., the telegenic former Tennessee congressman, who recently mulled a Senate run in New York and did time with Merrill Lynch, is also lobbying for Goldman now. A few more well-connected Goldman lobbyists:

  • Faryar Shirzad, a former economic aide to George W. Bush
  • Joe Wall, a former legislative affairs aide to Dick Cheney
  • Richard Roberts, who's served as a powerful Securities and Exchange Commission commissioner and aide to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a top GOPer on financial reform
  • Eric Edwards, formerly a staff director on a House financial services committee's subcommittee

It's a star-studded lineup, to be sure. That said, with public ire against Goldman rising, its reputation sinking, and even President Obama shunning the firm, even the Yankees of lobbying will have their work cut out for them.

Crist-Rubio Social Media Smackdown

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 11:40 AM EDT

On Thursday afternoon, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was expected to announce he will pull out of the GOP Senate primary and run for the open Senate seat as an independent. That would leave Marco Rubio, a former state House speaker, as the presumed Republican nominee. Crist's move has the politerati all a-twitter, because it's the most dramatic indicator of the Republican Party's lurch to the right and Tea Partydom—and because it now sets up a dramatic three-way contest that will pit a right-wing Republican against an ex-Republican moderate against a Democrat (Rep. Kendrick Meek).

This election will get loads of national attention, and it will be interesting to see how social media becomes a part of it. So far, Rubio has cleaned Crist's clock in this regard. A report put out today (conveniently!) by the Emerging Media Research Council gives the stats:

* Rubio’s Web traffic has grown 251% across the last three months while Crist’s Web traffic has grown only 44%.

* YouTube: Rubio has more than 540,000 views across 135 videos; Crist’s videos have been viewed 32,000 times. *

* Facebook: Rubio maintains more than a 4-1 advantage on Facebook: 60,000 “likes” to 14,700 “likes”.

* Twitter: Rubio maintains more than a 2-1 advantage on Twitter: 11,500 followers to 5,100 followers.

This certainly reflects the intensity of the support Rubio, a Tea Party darling, has drawn locally and nationally. Rubio is a young and dynamic candidate who appeals to a die-hard band; thus, he's a natural for social media. The question is, once the older and more moderate Crist goes indie, can he also go viral?

Karzai-ism Spreading to Iraq?

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 10:13 AM EDT

The Obama administration has a tough challenge figuring out how to handle the tainted government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Now, it may also have a similar mess to contend with in Iraq. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

The Obama administration is showing growing nervousness as Iraq’s postelection process of forming a new government turns out to be even more troubled and drawn-out than anticipated. After weeks of backstage prodding, US officials are now openly questioning the impact on US-Iraq relations – and in particular on plans to pull out all US combat forces this summer.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was a close second-place finisher in March 7 balloting, has employed what appear to be ever-more desperate measures to hang on to his post. In Washington, worries are mounting that Iraq will be saddled with a tainted government.

"They’re increasingly afraid of ending up with another Karzai-like mess," says Wayne White, a former State Department analyst on Iraq, referring to last year’s reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That election was widely deemed to have been stolen.

"There was always concern over time and the impact a drawn-out process of naming [an Iraqi] government could have," Mr. White adds. "But the prospect of a government tainted by illegitimacy is quickly becoming a much larger problem."

In a carefully worded admonition to the Iraqi government Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded Iraqi officials that "transparency and due process" are essential elements of an election and government-forming process that attains the confidence of the public. She called on Iraq’s leaders to "set aside their differences" and "to form quickly a government that is inclusive and represents the will of all Iraqis."

That's much easier said than done. After all, why shouldn't Maliki follow Karzai's lead—and do whatever he can to hold on to power? Couldn't he also expect to continute to count on Washington's support, like the Afghan leader? This shows the problem the administration faces: once you accept a fraudulent election in one country, leaders elsewhere get ideas.

An intransigent Maliki could put the Obama administration in a tough spot. As the Monitor notes,

White...says the Obama administration will be left with "a really wrenching choice over how it treats the government" if Maliki’s "efforts to stack the deck" result in him holding on to power.

That could mean renewed political instability, he says – and put the US in the uncomfortable position of "taking the side of what is widely assumed to be an illegitimate government."

To an extent that's already happening in Afghanistan. Does it matter if the same occurs in Iraq?

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Let the Finance Reform Battle Begin

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 8:46 AM EDT

After three days of GOP obstruction and deadlock, Senate Democrats finally wore down their colleagues across the aisle and will today begin full debate on overhauling Wall Street on the Senate floor. Instead of haggling behind closed doors, senators will now have to fight to improve or whittle down the bill out in the open. In the coming days, you’ll see members of both parties making lots of statements and offering amendments to the bill, largely crafted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), that bolster and weaken the array of proposed rules and regulations that rewrite how our financial services industry does business.

Right now, there look to be three main sticking points between the parties. One is the proposed consumer protection agency, which would oversee areas like mortgage lenders, auto dealers, and credit card practices. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a leading figure on financial reform, wants to pare back the reach and power of the agency; he says it would create unnecessary bureaucracy and would pry into the lives of Americans. Shelby’s counterpart, Sen. Dodd, said yesterday that he disagrees with Shelby’s position. "I cannot agree to his desire to weaken consumer protections given the enormous abuses we have seen," Dodd said. There's sure to be an intense fight waged on the Senate floor to determine the fate of the consumer agency.

What to do with systemically risky, or "too-big-to-fail," banks is another prickly issue. In an interview with CNBC yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another leading Republican on financial reform, said the two parties had yet to reconcile their differences on ending the threat of too-big-to-fail banks and preventing future taxpayer bailouts. That said, Corker hinted that GOPers and Democrats weren’t that far apart on the issue: "We can fix 'Too Big To Fail' piece. We really can, in about five minutes. Everybody knows how to fix it." If Corker’s remarks are any indication, reaching a compromise on too-big-to-fail—what Corker seems to believe is low-hanging fruit for the Senate—could be top of the to-do list.

The third issue where major differences remain is regulating derivatives, the exotic, opaque instruments used both by farmers and manufacturers to hedge their risk and by Wall Street to bet on swings in the markets. The derivatives language included in the bill now is especially tough—most of it comes from the Senate agriculture committee’s derivatives bill, which would require derivatives to be traded on exchanges (like the New York Stock Exchange) and put through a clearinghouse so that the risk of losses is absorbed by many parties instead of a few (think AIG). The agriculture committee’s bill would also force derivatives trading desks to be spun off from their larger banking operations, a provision that’s drawn the ire of Wall Street.

Yesterday, Shelby said, "on the derivatives, we haven't worked that out." And the lone Democrat to vote against cloture three times with Republicans, centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), opposes the current derivatives legislation, too. A provision in the derivatives section would force existing derivatives contracts to post margin—either cash or securities as collateral—on those deals. Warren Buffett, the head of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, had sought to kill that margin requirement for existing derivatives, saying the government couldn't rewrite existing contracts, and his company put pressure on Nelson to do so. But margin requirement remains in the bill, and it's unlikely Nelson will agree to the bill's derivatives rules as they are now until there’s resolution on the Buffett provision.

Of course, there are many other fights to come on the 1,300-page bill. (You can read about more of those here.) Only now, you can watch those fights on CSPAN, or the highlights on the big TV networks, just as many people tuned in for the war over health care reform. The debate starts today around noon.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 29, 2010

Thu Apr. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

A UH-60 Black Hawk flies over some scenic landscape while traveling to the location of a leaflet drop in Joghatoe District, Logar province, Afghanistan, on April 23, 2010. Photo via the US Army.

GOP Rep: Deport US Citizens! (VIDEO)

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 8:01 PM EDT

Lest you think that Mother Jones only scrutinizes the missteps of retrogressives in red states like Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, and South Carolina, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) has jumped in to remind America that hating all things vaguely immigrant-related—including US citizens—transcends state borders.

Hunter—not to be confused with his belligerent, anti-immigration dad of the same name, who more or less bequeathed the 52nd congressional district in San Diego to his son two years ago—traded the Beltway for a California Tea Party meeting last weekend, presumably so he could rail against the entitled Beltway elite class. The conversation turned to those durn'd dirty illegals, because there's no better way to express your solidarity with a bunch of 18th-century British-born colonists than to rail against immigration. Hunter praised Arizona's new "Papers, please" law to round up undocumented immigrants (or anyone who looks like one), calling it "a fantastic starting point." But at one point, his red-meat stumping got really raw. According to Talking Points Memo, things got weird during the Q-and-A:

"Would you support deportation of natural born American citizens that are the children of illegal aliens?" a man in the audience asked.

"I would have to, yes," Hunter said.

He continued:

"You can look and say, 'You're a mean guy. That's a mean thing to do. That's not a humanitarian thing to do.' We simply cannot afford what we're doing right now."

Actually, Duncan, it's not just a mean thing to do. It's kind of illegal. And logistically a bit difficult. 'Cause, you know, where are you going to deport a lifelong US citizen to?

Hunter, who batted for my Navy-Marine Corps team as an Iraq-deployed artillery officer, then explained that "it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen. It's within our souls."

So now, in addition to carrying your birth certificate and handgun with you in Arizona, you should probably steel yourself for any potential run-ins with the soul police. That's totally different from the thought police, though. We swear! Scout's honor!

SCOTUS: Where's the Diversity?

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 6:45 PM EDT

This week, the Congressional Black Caucus kicked off its campaign to move a woman or person of color into Justice John Paul Stevens's Supreme Court seat once he retires. On the nine-member Supreme Court, there are: two women (22%) in a nation where women are 50.7% of the general population, one black justice (11%) in a country where African-Americans are 12.8% of the population, and one Latina (11%) even though Latinos are the fastest growing minority population (currently 15.4%). The high court's gender disparity is the most glaring, and Caucus chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) urged Obama to consider these inequalities when making his high court nominations.

Recently, a report (PDF) by the Congressional Hispanic Staffers Association (CHSA) found that Congress's diversity stats aren't that great either. From The Hill:

Of the 199 offices that responded to the study conducted by the House’s chief administrative officer (CAO), 7.5 percent of chiefs of staff were black, 2.7 percent were Hispanic, 1.6 percent were Asian and 1.1 percent were American Indian. There were no Pacific Islanders. Those numbers lag far behind the racial makeup of the United States population, which the Census Bureau estimated to consist of about 35 percent minorities. Those numbers, which came after the 2000 census, specifically break down to 12.5 percent Latino, 12.3 percent African-American, 5.5 percent some other race, 3.6 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian.

This news spurred Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to launch a new House-wide initiative that increases the hiring and retention of diverse candidates. The initiative includes a "résumé bank" that targets the employment and promotion of congressional staff candidates who are not white as well as a diversity-oriented awareness program. CHSA also wants qualified, interested minority candidates to be among those interviewed when top-level job vacancies are available, a policy which hasn't been implemented yet.

Can a relatively homogeneous governing body render decisions that reflect the heterogeneous backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints of the US population? Stephanie's Citizen's United article basically spells out the answer to that one. Will a visibly diverse SCOTUS and Congress represent the socio-economic needs of minorities? Maybe not (See: Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice). But it's worth a try.

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