Mojo - April 2010

Florida Mulls Funding For Religious Schools

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 2:02 PM EDT

Want your tax dollars to fund someone else's private-school, religious education? Move to Florida. Sunshine State conservatives are pushing a constitutional amendment for November that would repeal a 125-year ban on state funding for religious programs. Their argument is largely historical: the state constitution currently features what's known as a "Blaine Amendment," a relic of the anti-Catholic hysteria of the late 1800s (here's a terrifying illustration from Harper's) which prohibits any public funds for religious programs. Here's the language:

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to provide that an individual or entity may not be barred from participating in any public program because of religion and to delete the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

The plan isn't as radical as it soundsthe Establishment Clause of the Constitution is still there, after all, so don't expect Gov. Charlie Crist to replace the law code with the Book of Leviticus any time soon. Beyond that, Florida's current statute is generally considered to be among the strictest in the union; a slight relaxation of the existing law probably wouldn't be so bad.

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Our Man in Kabul

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

Over the past several years, when he complained again and again about American attacks in his country that were killing civilians in surprising numbers and remarkably often, he was generally humored and dealt with as an irrelevance or an annoyance. Now, given the rampant drug trade, the corruption, the "tantrums," the emotional outbursts, the threats to join the Taliban, and his embracing of the Iranians and the Chinese, he is dealt with in Washington as a cross between a big baby, an unstable adult, an overemotional drug-taker, and a prime danger to the American project in Afghanistan. He was given a lot of TLC by the previous resident of the White House, while being studiously ignored or reproved by this one. American officials have lavished praise—and scorn—on him. They have brandished hard power—and laid on the soft power—to tame him. They have regularly tried "new tacks" in dealing with him, and then tacked—and tacked again. I'm talking, of course, about Hamid Karzai, the American-installed president of Afghanistan, our man in Kabul, as Alfred McCoy so aptly dubs him. He's our boy, our nemesis, the definition of our problem in Afghanistan, our worst mistake, and our missing conscience all wrapped in one.

Is the NRA Encouraging Anti-Government Extremism?

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 11:06 AM EDT

Apparently the actions of National Rifle Association member Timothy McVeigh didn't teach the organization that its violent anti-government rhetoric can have dangerous consequences. On a day when thousands of Tea Party activists are taking to the streets to protest Tax Day, the Violence Policy Center has released a report today chronicling the increasing ties between the gun lobby and the Tea Party movement, and the NRA's adoption of much of the "Patriot movement's" anti-government language. The center sees direct parallels between the NRA's current activities and those in the years leading up to McVeigh's fateful decision to blow up the Oklahoma federal building:

"The gun lobby is once again embracing—and, equally important, validating—the anti-government rhetoric being offered by activists that range from Tea Party members, through pro-gun advocates, to members of the militia movement. And as was the case with Timothy McVeigh, the risk lies not so much with the organized members of these groups, but with the "lone wolves" who not only embrace their rhetoric, but are willing to act on it with violence."

The report connects the NRA to the organizers of this Monday's Second Amendment March in DC, an event the VPC finds ominous. The VPC quotes march organizer Skip Coryell, who wrote a March article in Human Events describing the event's purpose:

My question to everyone reading this article is this: "For you, as an individual, when do you draw your saber? When do you say, “Yes, I am willing to rise up and overthrow an oppressive, totalitarian government?”...I hear the clank of metal on metal getting closer, but that’s not enough. The politicians have to hear it too. They have to hear it, and they have to believe it. Come and support me at the Second Amendment March on April 19th on the Washington Monument grounds. Let’s rattle some sabers and show the government we’re still here. We are here, and we are not silent!

The NRA is not an official sponsor of the event, but it's provided an unofficial blessing and has helped promote the march to its members. The VPC finds the connections disturbing given that the march will feature such speakers as Larry Pratt, a Tea Party member who played a pivotal role in a 1992 meeting of racist and extremist activists in Colorado that essentially launched the modern militia movement.

The VPC also finds a big overlap between the NRA's election volunteer coordinators and Tea Party activists in many states, and notes that the NRA has capitalized on the movement by marketing a line of "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirts and other apparel regularly sported at Tea Party rallies. The report closes with a quote from Aitan Goelma, a former federal prosecutor who helped win convictions against McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing case, who told the Christian Science Monitor in March:

Anytime you have group-think and this churning of ridiculous ideas back and forth, eventually you’ll get someone like McVeigh who’s going to say ‘I’m going to take the mantle of leadership and fire the shot heard around the world and start the second American revolution...’ Some of this is fantasy. I think the idea is that it is kind of fun to talk about a UN tank on your front lawn and the New World Order...but when someone blows up a building and kills 19 kids in a day-care center, it’s not so glamorous anymore"

As the VPC report suggests, the NRA ought to think twice before egging on people who frequently talk about how the tree of liberty needs periodic watering with the blood of patriots. A few of them might start to take that line a little too seriously. It wouldn't be surprising of some of those folks showed up next week at the Second Amendment March—an event that promises to make today's Tax Day antics look like, well, a tea party.

Dump Your Palin Stock?

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

That is, if you think she's going to be a presidential contender in 2012. MSNBC's First Read newsletter assesses of Palin's current position in the political firmament—and the picture doesn't bode well for those who'd like one day to call her Madam President:

The Palin question: After giving at least four high-profile speeches in the last couple of weeks -- for John McCain’s re-election, in Searchlight, NV, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and yesterday in Boston -- we once again raise this question about Sarah Palin: Is she more influential with the media than she is with Republicans? For example, she placed third at the SRLC straw poll (a disappointing finish when you consider that the winner, Mitt Romney, didn’t show up and that Ron Paul was second). In addition, a New York Times/CBS poll finds that a plurality of self-identified Tea Party members don’t think she’s qualified to be president. And now Kentucky Senate candidate Trey Grayson (R) says Palin isn’t qualified for the White House. No doubt that she’s a political celebrity, but that isn’t necessarily translating into GOP support. There is growing evidence that she is not the political force some would like to believe (indeed, if she were actually pondering a big for 2012, this last month would be seen as a disappointment). By the way, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported on “TODAY” this morning that California AG Jerry Brown, who is running for governor, is investigating Palin’s paid speech at Cal State Stanislaus about whether the school’s foundation properly followed 501 3c rules.

She's everywhere, she's ever-controversial, she's great copy, she's Queen of Political Buzz. But none of that makes her presidential material—or even presidential candidate material. Is she going to run? My hunch is that she has already decided. But she sure ain't gonna tell the rest of us, you betcha. There's still too much money to be made and attention to be won as a possible presidential wanna-be.

Tax Day: Who Really Pays?

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 9:36 AM EDT

On Tax Day, Citizens for Tax Justice has released a report (PDF) rebutting a top conservative talking point: almost half of Americans pay no taxes, and the rich pay far more taxes than the rest of the country. They make this case for an obvious reason: to beat back calls for raising taxes for the well-to-do. But guess what? Their fundamental premise is not an accurate reflection of reality. Here's how CTJ explains it:

Conservative pundits and media outlets have seized upon an estimate that 47 percent of taxpayers owe no federal income tax for 2009. This statistic has morphed into the claim by conservatives that “47 percent of all Americans don’t pay any taxes.” The conservative pundits are wrong. It’s true that many taxpayers don’t pay federal income taxes, but they still pay federal payroll taxes (and some federal excise taxes) and also pay state and local taxes. Most of these other taxes are regressive, meaning they take a larger share of a poor or middle-class family’s income than they take from a rich family. This largely offsets the progressivity of the federal income tax.

CTJ estimates that the share of total taxes (federal state and local taxes) paid by taxpayers in each income group is quite similar to the share of total income received by each income group in 2009. For example, the share of total taxes paid by the richest one percent (22.1 percent) is not dramatically different from the share of total income received by this group (20.4 percent).

Everyone in America pays some sort of taxes, which may take the form of income, sales or property taxes imposed by state and local governments, in addition to federal income, payroll and excise taxes.

For those of you whose eyes glaze over whenever someone talks tax rate policy, CTJ has whipped up a chart makes the case plainly:

You'll note that folks across the spectrum carry a tax burden close to their share of total income. How fair. Measured this way, the rich do pay a slight bit more in taxes—a percentage point or two. But isn't that patriotic of them? Let's thank them and buy them an imported beer today.

Fiore Cartoon: Pulitzer Thanks

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 5:05 AM EDT

As you can imagine, when MoJo found out our longtime cartoonist Mark Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize, we were thrilled. In the cartoon below, the gracious and talented satirist offers his thanks to fans, family, and friends. Check it out, and also take a look at our gallery of his stellar cartoons.

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HAMP: Still No Hope for Homeowners

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 4:10 AM EDT

Is there any hope for the Obama administration's much maligned, $75 billion homeowner relief effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP)? Government watchdogs, consumer advocates, and lawmakers have, since its unveiling last March, repeatedly criticized HAMP and its architects over at the Treasury Department for any number of reasons—the program's paltry results, Treasury's efforts to move the goal posts for HAMP success, the disproportionate number of carrots and too few sticks in the program, and much more. In just over a year, the program, which was initially predicted to help three to four million homeowners, has provided permanent loan modifications (an agreement between the mortgage servicer and homeowner to lower monthly payments through interest rate or principal reductions, or extending the loan's life) to 228,000 homeowners, according to Phyllis Caldwell, the head of the Homeownership Preservation Office within the Treasury. By contrast, there were 2.8 million foreclosures in 2009, and some three million more are projected this year.

Last month, the Treasury rolled out its most comprehensive changes to HAMP yet. The new rules, the Treasury said, could pave the way toward fewer foreclosures by urging more principal reductions, providing relief to unemployed homeowners, and letting homeowners convert their mortgage to a federally-backed, more secure loan. But will these changes really do much good, salvaging what some say has become a $75 billion boondoggle? That's the question the House financial services committee took up on Wednesday, bringing together top administration and industry officials, academics, and other experts to weigh in on HAMP's new look. Unfortunately, what the majority of those experts had to say didn't bode well for Obama's flagship program.

A common refrain among those who testified yesterday was that HAMP remains a mostly voluntary program; that Treasury has yet to force mortgage servicers, who are the boots-on-the-ground connection to homeowners, and investors to make tough but necessary changes. Take principal writedowns, the reduction of how much someone owes on their mortgage. While HAMP's new changes encourage principal writedowns, they still don't make them mandatory, but rather dangle yet more incentives over servicers to get them to write down principal. "The new principal reduction approach (which will not even be implemented until close to the end of this calendar year) is unlikely to coax many servicers into reducing principal," said Alys Cohen, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Moreover, coaxing servicers to decrease principal and offering more money to do so reflects the Treasury's insistence on incentives over requirements. "Unfortunately, as HAMP has been implemented, Treasury has largely relied on large carrots to get servicer participation and has generally, if not entirely, eschewed sticks," said Andrew Jakabovics, of the Center for American Progress. "Borrowers and their advocates frequently find servicers are making mistakes on a range of program elements but there is no consistent, independent mechanism for redress, despite calls for developing a robust appeal process since the program’s beginning." Treasury's avoidance of mandatory principal requirements—or what's called "cramdown," in which bankruptcy courts are allowed to rewrite the terms of a mortgage—aligns with the position of the mortgage industry, as evidenced by the testimony yesterday of Robert Story, the chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, which opposes these tougher provisions.

Several experts yesterday also doubted the administration's plan to help unemployed homeowners by reducing their mortgage payments for a period of up to six months while they try to find work. The NCLC's Cohen, for instance, doubted whether six months was a sufficient period of time to find a new job; indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this month that 6.55 million workers had been out of work for more than 26 weeks, a national record. If so many workers are jobless for more than six months, will this addition to HAMP do that much good?

Big question marks remain in the structure of HAMP, Wednesday's hearing showed. The net present value test—used by mortgage servicers to determine whether someone gets a modification or not—has yet to be made public, which means there's no transparency or accountability for a core element of HAMP. Moreover, Treasury has yet to announce any kind of penalties or corrective actions for servicers who don't comply with HAMP's guidelines, said Cohen.

And as Valparaiso law professor Alan White described, HAMP's overall impact has actually been to decrease the total number of modifications, both public and private. Before March 2009, when HAMP came out, permanent modifications numbered around 120,000 a month; soon after, that figure dropped to 80,000 or so a month. Now, a year after HAMP's release, White said, those modification numbers were returning to pre-HAMP levels. "There is still no overall increase in modifications, or reduction in foreclosures, resulting from HAMP," White said. What's more, data released by the Treasury this week showed that the number of homeowner defaults by those who'd received a permanent modification nearly doubled in March. And in a report released Wednesday, the Congressional Oversight Panel stated that 75 percent of homeowners in HAMP remained underwater, meaning they owe more than their house is worth.

In his testimony, White questioned the entire premise of HAMP. He dubbed the program's philosophy "extend and pretend," suggesting that the program merely moves homeowners' debt a bit further into the future, kicking the can down the road, rather than addressing the issue of negative equity and out of whack mortgage payments right now. The only way to truly address the foreclosure crisis, he said, was to mandate principal reductions for homeowners—not use small incentive payments and other carrots to lure servicers into helping people.

In all, most of the testimonies reflected a widely held skepticism about HAMP, new provisions or not. Those experts essentially suggested that, unless the program is largely reimagined, it won't do much at all to help the millions of homeowners still clinging to their houses.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 15, 2010

Thu Apr. 15, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

Shell casings litter the ground March 9 as Marines give classes to spouses of 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Combat Center Range 500. Photo via the US Marines.

A Second Stimulus for Education?

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 6:10 PM EDT

This morning Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked Congress for more money to prevent massive teacher layoffs and program cuts across the country, something he and President Obama had previously been leary of doing for fear of a Republican backlash against additional government stimulus spending.

If Duncan gets his wish, this would be a second round of funding for the nation's schools. (The first round was part of last year's $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.) After Duncan's testimony, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is on the Senate Approproations Committee and chairs the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, unveiled a bill that would give states an additional $23 billion to save teaching jobs. 

"Every day brings more reports about a massive wave of layoffs that could soon strike school districts and institutions of higher education. Based on estimates we’re seeing so far, the number of pink slips for educators could easily top 100,000 this fall," Harkin said. He added, "Job cuts of this magnitude would of course have a devastating impact on families across the country and could stall the nation’s economic recovery. But they would also take a terrible toll on our educational system."

The $23 billion Harkin has proposed would constitute new spending he considers "emergency aid." The $100 billion given to states last year to prevent them from distributing swathes of pink slips has run out, and many states are facing budget gaps as wide as the ones they confronted last year. California has already notified some 23,000 teachers that they could be out of a job come summer, and Republican Gov. Chris Christie has told New Jersey schools that if desperately needed federal dollars don't come through, the education funding they receive from the state could be cut by as much as five percent.

The House already approved a bill similar to Harkin's late last year. But it passed by a slim margin because lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are worried about their spending records as they head into this fall's mid-term elections. Harkin will surely face similar challenges getting his bill passed—eight of his fellow Senate Democrats up for re-election this fall.

Dems: GOP Loves Wall St.

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 4:08 PM EDT

A day after the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, blasted the Senate's current draft of financial reform legislation, saying it would lead to "endless taxpayer-funded bailouts," three Senate Democrats fired back at McConnell today by painting GOPers as too cozy with Wall Street. The senators—Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island—stressed that the bill would force big banks and other financial institutions to fund their own future bailouts, through a $50 billion resolution fund, and that Republicans like McConnell were merely playing political games. "This is one of many recent cases in which Republican rhetoric has become completely unhinged from reality," Whitehouse said at a press conference today, "in which words are used for their effects and are totally disconnected from the truth."

The Democratic senators used the press conference mainly to highlight a recent meeting between top GOPers and Wall Street leaders, and to accuse the other party of caring more about Big Finance than not American families. Whitehouse pointed to a private meeting in New York between 25 Wall Street executives, including hedge fund managers, and McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (D-Tex.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as evidence that Republicans have aligned themselves with the interests of Wall Street. "If you look at the spectacle of Republicans running up to Wall Street to offer their services, in return for financial support, at blunting the effects of financial reform legislation...I think you can see that these charges are ill-founded" and intended to distract from the real debate around financial reform, Whitehouse said.

This partisan infighting offers a preview of what's to come as the Senate tries to pass a financial reform bill in the coming weeks. While rewriting our financial system's regulations should be an issue on which there's bipartisan support, this week's blow-by-blow suggests the debate around new financial regulation could end up looking like the ugly health care wars, with a bitter debate dividing the Senate. If this kind of blow-by-blow continues in the Senate, it will dim hopes of sending a bill to the president by Memorial Day.