Mojo - April 2010

How the Filibuster Redraws the Map

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Last week I spoke with Greg Koger, author of a new book on the history of the filibuster. You'll never guess what we talked about. The interview is up here and it's worth a look, but there was one bit of our conversation that didn't make it into the final product, which I think is still worth noting.

Koger pointed out that one unintended consequence of filibuster reform would be that the Senate would start to act more like the House. As he puts it, "that's not necessarily a good thing." Since it sounded like an argument against majority rule, I asked him (in so many words) why he hates democracy.  Here's what he said:

It's not clear what majority rule means in the context of the Senate. The Senate's one of the most malapportioned legislatures anywhere! On the one hand you can tell the story where a bare majority of the Senate represents a very small proportion of the American population. And then the counterargument is that 41 Senators representing an even smaller portion of the population can block legislation. Either way, the main point is that the Senate is a very malapportioned body...so the ability to muster a majority doesn’t necessarily mean that the national interest is being served.

This is a pretty important point and one that gets overlooked a lot when talking about something like the filibuster. But I think it lets the chamber off a little easy: One of the reasons the Senate is so malapportioned in the first place is because the admission of largely unpopulated states to the Union was determined by...the United States Senate. It's kind of a self-fulfilling failure.

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Oklahoma: Pro-Life Nanny State

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Statistics collected by the National Birth Defects Prevention Network show that fetuses brought to term in Oklahoma have higher incidences of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal birth defects than in the US at large. Oklahoma babies, for example, are 63 percent likelier to be born with gastroschisis, a condition in which the internal abdominal organs—particularly the intestine—are pushed outside the baby's torso. Such babies require immediate—and potentially risky—surgery after birth, and even survivors may have limited digestive functioning and costly, challenging lifelong disabilities.

Why am I telling you this? Because it all relates back to Oklahoma's general distaste for legal abortion. The Sooner State hates a woman's right to choose; this we knew already, from its plan to post women's medical histories online when they choose an abortion, to its shrinking number of clinics able to perform the procedure (three, according to a very scary anti-abortionists' site; Oklahoma's solidly red-state neighbor to the south, Texas, has 46).

But when the state's legislature overrode a governor's veto on two new medieval anti-choice measures yesterday, we learned something new: Oklahoma hates parents' rights generally, and it's willing to create a nanny state around that theme.

One of those new laws should give every parent, or potential parent, pause when mulling over a job offer in Norman or Oklahoma City. That's because it grants immunity from malpractice lawsuits for doctors who refuse to tell parents that their child will be born with a birth defect.

Supreme Court Quote of Day

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:58 PM EDT

The Supreme Court today took up the case of Doe v. Reed, a lawsuit over the constitutionality of Washington State's law requiring public disclosure of the names of people who signed a petition to put an anti-gay initiative on the ballot. James Bopp, the lawyer for the anti-gay group Protect Marriage, had argued in a brief that the petitions must be withheld lest the signers get the Prop 8 donor treatment and--gasp!--get called douchebags in nasty emails. (And yes, that word really appears in a Supreme Court brief; no word yet as to whether it was uttered during oral arguments.)

Surprisingly, arch conservative and good Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia didn't seem to be buying it. During oral arguments this morning, he let loose one of his classic snappy comebacks, telling Bopp:

"Democracy requires civic courage. The First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls if you take part in the legislative process."

Hear, hear.

Dems, GOP Want DOJ Probe of Goldman

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

A letter drafted by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) calling for a criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs has garnered more than 140,000 petition signatures as well as the support of 61 members of the House, including Republican congressman Michael Burgess of Texas. Kaptur's letter, addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, draws on the allegations cited in the Securities and Exchange Commission's securities fraud suit against Goldman, and says the DOJ should go one step further by pursuing criminal charges against Goldman. "If the DOJ is not currently looking into this particular case, we respectfully ask you to ensure that the US Department of Justice immediately open a case on this matter and investigate," Kaptur's letter says.

Kaptur and members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the organization that drummed up the petition signatures and also made some 4,000 calls to Congress about a Goldman criminal suit, will meet outside the DOJ today at 2 pm to turn up the heat on Holder. The pressure from Kaptur and PCCC comes at a incredibly tough juncture for Goldman. In addition to the SEC's civil suit, Goldman's top executives, including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, face a shareholder suit in New York surrounding the firm's controversial collateralized debt obligations deal (the same at the center of the SEC suit). The firm is also the defendant in a class-action suit over mortgage securities. Blankfein has said he and the firm will fight the SEC's suit.

Pete Peterson's Anti-Entitlement Juggernaut Gets Fueled Up by Obama

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

When Obama’s new Deficit Commission gets going, it has plans for "partnering“--in the words of executive director Bruce Reed--with outside groups. Among them will be the foundation run by Wall Street billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who on today is upstaging the president with his own fiscal summit in Washington. Obama insists he is keeping an open mind about how to deal with the deficit and national debt--but he’s already stacked his own commission with people who lean heavily toward one particular solution: cutting entitlements for the old, the sick, the disabled, and the poor. And if that wasn't enough, he now looks to be working hand-in-glove with a wealthy private organization whose central purpose is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Talk about foregone conclusions. 

The White House set the stage two months ago when it created the euphemistically named National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform--commonly called the Deficit Commission or the Debt Panel. The commission's anti-entitlement bent was clear from the get-go based on Obama’s choice of Alan Simpson to co-chair the commission. The former Republican senator from Wyoming has already described his mission as “saving” the United States from “insolvency” by hacking away at entitlements. His longstanding dedication to cutting entitlements dates back several decades, according to Saul Friedman, and "as recently as 2005, Simpson, a conservative from Wyoming who left the Senate in 1997, supported attempts by President George Bush to privatize Social Security by turning part of the pension and insurance program into millions of individual investment accounts, which by now would have lost 20 percent of their value." And even now, "Simpson, who should know better, conflates or deliberately confuses Social Security’s long term fiscal problems, which are minor, with its supposed contribution to the federal deficit, which is almost nil."

Known for his colorful language, Simpson recently attracted attention by saying old people ought to but out of the entitlement debate altogether, since any cuts would only apply to younger people: "You’ve got scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever." And in an interview with PBS's NewsHour after his appointment, Simpson clearly showed his hand on Social Security: “You have two [sic] choices…you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. And if the people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grit with the chickens. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.”

But Simpson's power as chair of the presidential Deficit Commission pales in comparison to that of billionaire anti-entitlement crusader Pete Peterson. According to Forbes, Peterson was the 149th richest man in America last year, with $2.8 billion in assets. During his long career he has been, among other things, CEO of Bell & Howell,  head of Lehman Brothers, a co-founder of the Blackstone Group, and head of the Council on  Foreign Relations. He was Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, and in 1994 served on a Clinton bipartisan commission on entitlements and tax reform. He launched his own Peter G. Peterson Foundation with a grant of $1 billion.  

A fiscal conservative, Peterson has long been issuing dire warnings about the the nation’s skyrocketing debt. The key cause of the problem, in his analysis, is that entitlement programs--primarily Social Security and Medicare, but Medicaid as well--are out of control; the only solution is to cut them. Peterson's longstanding attack on Social Security has been most extensively documented by William Greider in The Nation. At this point, Peterson has emerged as the self-appointed head of what some people have begun to call the “granny bashers,” who argue that greedy geezers are ruining the lives of younger generations with their unconscionable demands for basic healthcare and a hedge against destitution. (Peterson himself is in his eighties--but of course he’s too rich to worry about such things.)  

The granny bashers’ real agenda, of course, is to cut the social safety net programs that they have long abhorred--but they have gained far more ground with their intergenerational inequity claims than they ever would with a straight-out attack on Social Security and Medicare. The majority of the Washington punditry seem to have fallen for it--and so too, apparently, has the White House.

Finance Reform Battle Delayed...Again

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:02 PM EDT

The financial reform battle—that is, to even start the full debate in the Senate—continues on here on Capitol Hill. For the third time in as many days, Senate GOPers defeated a vote to start debating financial reform legislation, a bill that would try to end future taxpayer bailouts, create a new consumer protection agency to guard against predatory lenders and dangerous products, and shed light on the opaque, $450 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market. The vote was 56-42, with centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) again voting with Republicans. Majority Leader Harry Reid ultimately voted against the bill, too, a maneuver that allows him to schedule another vote which could happen as early as Thursday morning.

The losing vote wasn't entirely surprising, as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a top Democratic negotiator on financial reform, said earlier Wednesday morning that his party still didn't have the votes to begin the debate. Remarks on Wednesday by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) suggest the gulf between the two parties remains gaping and it could take several more days before an agreement is finally reached. "Are we close to wrapping up a comprehensive deal? No, we're not close to that," Shelby told MSNBC.

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Neocons Launch War of Words Against Obama

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

The neocons have a new beef with President Barack Obama: he's reportedly dropping the phrase "Islamist extremism" and replacing it with "violent extremism." On Thursday, the Committee on the Present Danger—which in its heyday was a collection of Cold War hawks who opposed détente with the Soviet Union—sent a letter to Obama, deputy national security adviser John Brennan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring that "this action contradicts the accepted military intelligence doctrine to properly identify, define, and know your enemy."

The letter added:

the CPD believes that militant Islamic regimes and movements represent a serious threat to the United States and other free nations. If we are to meet this challenge, we must understand the beliefs and motivations of those who have dedicated themselves to what they call a “jihad” against “infidels” based on their reading of the Koran.

The CPD missive was signed by former Secretary of State George Shultz and former CIA chief R. James Woolsey, the two chairmen of CPD, plus 64 other members of the group. These include the usual suspects of conservative hawkdom: Morrie Amitay, Frank Gaffney, Clifford May, Andrew McCarthy, Joshua Muravchik, Daniel Pipes, Danielle Pletka, Norman Podhoretz, Randy Scheunemann, and Victoria Toensing. Former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Reagan National Security Adviser Roebrt McFarlane also joined in.

The CPD letter echoes an angry note that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), an honorary CPD chairman, sent Brennan earlier in the month. Lieberman complained that the term "Islamist extremism" does not

appear in two critical national security documents released by the Administration in 2010: the Department of Homeland Security's Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report and the Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review Report—both of which guide our government's numerous and costly policies and programs that have as their major purpose protecting the American people from terrorism inspired by violent Islamist extremist ideology and carries out by violent Islamist terrorists.

Lieberman complained that "the failure to identify our enemy for what it is—violent Islamist extremism—is offensive."And he argued that "any reluctance to describe our enemies as exactly what they are—violent Islamist extremists—disrespects the non-violent Muslim majority and compromises our ability to defeat the extremists."

FedEx vs. UPS on Unionization

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson has a great column today on the battle between UPS and FedEx, the parcel carriers, over whether FedEx should be governed by the same labor laws as its competitor. As it stands, FedEx, which started as an air transport company but has since expanded to ground service, falls under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), while UPS, which started as a ground service, falls under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In practice, that makes it very hard for FedEx workers to unionize. Meyerson explains:

Drivers at UPS, FedEx's main rival, and at other, smaller delivery companies can and have voted to form their own Teamster locals in myriad cities across the land, as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) permits. Under the RLA, however, the rules for forming unions are very different: The entire nationwide workforce must vote in a single election, and the union must obtain a majority not just of the workers voting but of voters and non-voters combined. (If a comparable rule held for presidential elections, requiring the winner to obtain a majority of the adult population of the United States, it's not clear that this nation would have had a president since—well, ever.)

It seems obvious that two companies that directly compete in the same business should be governed by the same labor rules. That's why the House passed a bill in March that would bring FedEx under the NLRA. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who represents Tennessee, the home state of FedEx CEO and GOP donor Fred Smith, has pledged to kill the measure. And that gets us to what is perhaps the most interesting part of this story: the battle on Capitol Hill between FedEx lobbyists on one side and the Teamsters and UPS lobbyists on the other. This story gets at the heart of how Washington really works. Most legislative battles aren't fought between disinterested parties looking for a common-sense solution—they're fought between powerful interest groups with money at stake. FedEx vs. UPS + the Teamsters is just another variation of Wall Street vs. Big Hollywood.

Scott Brown: Truck or Wall St. Limo?

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 9:50 AM EDT

Americans for Financial Reform, a group putting the heat on Republicans for blocking the Senate's Wall St. overhaul, has a new ad out today in the Boston area targeting Scott Brown, the junior senator from Massachusetts who won the late Ted Kennedy's former seat and took away the Democrats' senate 60-vote supermajority. In the past two days, Brown has twice voted against beginning full debate on the Senate floor on the financial regulatory bill, joining GOPers in stalling an inevitable vote on reform. In the ad, AFR highlights the fact that the financial services industry was a major donor for Brown (the finance, insurance, and real estate, or FIRE, sector was the largest giver to Brown's campaign at $972,800, according to the Center for Responsive Politics), and says, "The Wall Street banks got their money's worth with Senator Brown and bonus checks are no doubt in the mail."

Here's the ad in its entirety:

Everybody Draw Mohammed...Oops!

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Cartoonist Molly Norris took a principled, tongue-in-cheek stand, and now she's getting some rather cold feet.

The Seattle artist was irked by Comedy Central's recent refusal to air a South Park episode depicting the prophet Mohammed—a big no-no in Islamic circles. The censorship came in response to threats against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone by the website Revolution Muslim, which according to the Internet rumor mill is run by an Israeli Jew named Joseph Cohen.

Actually, South Park has depicted the prophet in the past with little fanfare—see Boing Boing's interview with Parker and Stone—but that was before the European cartoon-contest uproar, and before Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his work on the short film Submission.

By Molly NorrisIn any case, to protest the censorship, Norris created the satirical poster at left (which needs some copyediting) and put it on her website. She then sent it to Dan Savage, the always-provocative editor of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, who posted it without comment last Friday on the paper's Slog blog.

Somehow, Norris thought it would remain local.

Savage told me he agreed with the sentiment, so he posted the artwork. "Now it's all over the world," he said.By Molly Norris "She was trying to start something, but now she's running scared and freaked out."

That's in part because her work—yes—depicts the prophet. As a cup of tea, a domino, a box of pasta, and—hey, you have eyes, read it yourself! (UPDATE: Norris writes that these figures don't depict Mohammed; they just claim to.) This probably didn't win her many Muslim fans—Islam forbids any representations of Allah and Mohammed, especially as a dog-shaped purse. (Then again, some Muslims weren't too happy about the threats against Parker and Stone.)

Norris' poster went viral, even inspiring a Facebook group and counter-group. And Reason magazine promptly joined in, asking readers to submit drawings of the prophet, which it promised to publish on May 20.

All this attention left Morris feeling, well, pretty damn nervous. She joined the group "Ban Everyone Draw Mohammed Day," took the poster down from her website—a move akin to trying to put toothpaste back in its tube—and replaced it with an explanatory cartoon:

"I have hit some kind of gigantic nerve!...I have let people down!...I am so freaked out that I am not even drinking my regular 4 pots of coffee a day...Good think I'm married to a sumo wrestler!"

And so on.

She may find some solace in the fact that America is on her side. While I was writing this post, the results of a new Zogby poll appeared in my inbox. (Me just loves this Interweb thing!) And here's what Zogby found:

Generally speaking, do you agree or disagree with Comedy Central's decision to censor parts of a South Park episode deemed offensive to some Muslims?

Agree
Overall: 19%
Democrats: 27%
Republicans: 9%
Independents: 19%

Disagree
Overall: 71%
Dems: 60%
Republicans: 87%
Indies: 68%

Sorry, but I'm so with the the Republicans and the South Park guys on this one. Muslims and Christians and Jews—and, for that matter, unbelievers—have every right to be angry, to carry picket signs, to write letters to the editor, rant in the blog comments, or change the channel when somebody disrespects their object of reverence.

But free speech, when tested, is never pretty. It pays to remember that Supreme Court free-speech cases don't involve polite Midwesterners and the like, but rather people like Hustler's Larry Flynt or Westboro Baptist's Reverend Fred Phelps—people who say and do and print extremely offensive things. And if they offend you, well, don't buy their magazines—or try and sue them if you like. But nobody should be allowed to use religion to take away other peoples' right to self-expression. Least of all here. Because, you know, in addition to Yahweh and Jesus and Allah, we Americans also worship a 223-year-old document that strongly implies something to this effect.

UPDATE: Norris has added a quote to her home page that I couldn't agree with more, and that also applies perfectly to things like flag-burning: "Fight for the right to draw Mohammed, but then decline doing so."

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