Mojo - April 2010

The Fowl Case Against HCR

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers is a nice little case about abandoned gravel pits, migratory birds, and the true meaning of the words "navigable waters." In a 5-4 decision in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Water Act did not apply to man-made intrastate ponds (and their interstate migratory bird populations), and that Chicago-area towns could create a landfill on private property containing isolated bodies of stagnant water. Tough luck for environmental activists (not to mention the geese), but not exactly a landmark decision, either.

There the case rested, like the Ring of Power in the river Anduin, until late last month. That's when former Rep. Tom Campbell, the front-runner in the California GOP primary to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer, unveiled his constitutional argument against health care reform. In a blog post on his campaign site, Campbell suggests that the Supreme Court will use Solid Waste's narrow reading of the Commerce Clause to strike down the individual mandate:

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal government’s attempt to exert jurisdiction under migratory bird legislation over man-made ponds. The federal government argued that the birds couldn’t tell if the ponds were man-made or not, and the availability of these ponds affected the interstate and international flight of migratory fowl. The Supreme Court held this was not sufficient for the federal government to exercise its jurisdiction. [The individual mandate] is a very close parallel to this statute.

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Is Obama Putting Money Behind His Nuke Security Pitch?

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 10:40 AM EDT

President Barack Obama has done much to make nuclear security a top-drawer issue. This week, he's hosting 47 world leaders in Washington for a summit on the matter. No surprises are expected, and the "deliverables"—policy-wonkese for "outcomes"—are well known: a series of agreements in which nations will pledge to do more and cooperate better to secure nuclear material that could be used in a bomb. But the high-profile gathering—which follows Obama signing a new Start treaty with Russia to reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals—has placed an often-ignored issue on the world's radar screen.

As the summit proceeds, Obama and his aides will justifiably cite the importance of the endeavor under way. But while arms control advocates are grateful that Obama is drawing attention to the problem of loose-nukes material, they've questioned whether Obama has put his money (that is, taxpayer dollars) where his mouth is. Several days ago, the Fissile Materials Working Group, a collection of nonproliferation experts and groups, released a paper that analyzes Obama's budget and concludes that he is not funding nuclear security programs adequately—especially given his rhetoric:

One year ago, President Barack Obama made a bold pledge to "secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years." His immediate follow-through, however, has been wanting. For instance, his fiscal year 2010 budget request to meet this goal was actually $200 million less than what the Bush administration allocated a year earlier for securing nuclear material abroad. In fact, the administration still hasn't defined what it actually considers vulnerable nuclear material. So, in essence, Obama has lost a full calendar year in his four-year quest.

It's also disappointing that the requested State Department budget to combat WMD proliferation and promote global threat reduction is down more than $5 million—including a substantial $18 million cut in the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund.

He has done somewhat better lately. His fiscal year 2011 budget request for securing fissile material increased by $320 million over the 2010 budget, and it forecasts growth in the coming years for key programs run by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Ditto for spending in the other agencies that handle nuclear security--in particular the Defense Department and Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program.

But even this budget request isn't adequate to meet Obama's ambitious goal. Among all of these agencies, there is only one new initiative—CTR's $74 million Global Nuclear Lockdown Program. (The rest of the larger nuclear security budget mainly accelerates existing activities without expanding their scope.)

The group notes that the Global Threat Reduction Initiative will receive a budget increase of $211 million. But it points out, "This is extremely important work, but it doesn't meet the president's 'global' pledge since some of the countries targeted, while certainly possessing dangerous material, don't represent the world's highest priority nuclear dangers. It also notes that Obama's budget reduces the State Department's programs to reduce WMD proliferation and promote global threat reduction by more than $5 million. The paper calls for beefing up funding for various nuclear security programs and for modifying a congressional limit on nuclear security spending in Russia and the former Soviet Union states that begins in 2012. And it urges Obama to use the summit to whip up support for a $3 billion-per-year global fund for WMD security. The report says, "At the end of the day the president's four-year goal is unlikely to be met in the time frame he has endorsed for budgetary, bureaucratic, and diplomatic reasons. Thus, he must find the political will for nuclear material security that matches his rhetoric on the topic."

It will take plenty of effort and attention—and money, too—to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Linda McMahon and Steroids

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Connecticut. She had a pretty good chance of winning the general election back when Chris Dodd, the Democratic incumbent, was still in the race. But Dodd hung up his hat, and Connecticut's incredibly popular attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, announced he would run for the seat.

Right now, Blumenthal looks close to unbeatable: he leads McMahon and the other two GOP candidates, former congressman Rob Simmons and investment manager Peter Schiff, by over 20 points in the polls. So instead of fighting it out for a very good shot at Dodd's Senate seat, the three Republicans now seem to be battling for an opportunity to run as a massive underdog to Blumenthal. But the primary still seems set to be a knock-down drag-out contest. This story, from the New London Day, won't help McMahon any:

In December 1989, as federal investigators were zeroing in on a Pennsylvania doctor who would soon be convicted of selling steroids to professional wrestlers, Linda McMahon sent a confidential memo to a fellow executive at Titan Sports, the family company that operated what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation.

The WWF, she wrote, should alert Dr. George T. Zahorian III that a criminal investigation could be heading his way, according to court documents reviewed by The Day.

"Although you and I discussed before about continuing to have Zahorian at our events as the doctor on call, I think that is now not a good idea," McMahon wrote in the memo. "Vince agreed, and would like for you to call Zahorian and to tell him not to come to any more of our events and to also clue him in on any action that the Justice Department is thinking of taking."

Some time that month, not long before Zahorian was arrested and charged with illegally selling steroids, federal prosecutors alleged that an unnamed Titan Sports official called the doctor and instructed him to "destroy any evidence of his contact with WWF or WWF wrestling personnel."

The rest of the report is here. It's good to see medium-sized newspapers like The Day still doing important political reporting. I'm looking forward to seeing what the paper can dig up on the other candidates.

(h/t Josh Marshall)

Consumer Agency's Stock Climbs

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

As Congress returns to action this week, with writing new financial regulation atop their to-do list, a new poll (pdf) released today by the Consumer Federation of America found that 62 percent of those polled supported a new consumer financial protection agency. That's a 5 percent increase from eight months ago. Opposition to the proposed agency decreased from 39 percent to 34 percent over that eight-month period, the poll found. This uptick in support is a boon for the proposed agency, which would protect consumers from predatory lending practices, unfair fees charged by credit card companies and banks, and toxic financial products like no-income-no-job-no-asset mortgage loans. Consumer advocates, like Elizabeth Warren, say the agency is one of the few parts of the Senate's bill that would directly help American families.

The political support for a tough consumer agency is far from assured, however. While liberal Democrats have favored creating an independent, standalone consumer agency, resembling something like the Environmental Protection Agency, more moderate and conservative lawmakers have sought to chip away at the agency's independence and limit its rule-writing power. Now back from recess, one of the Senate's main hurdles on the way to crafting a financial reform bill is deciding the consumer protection agency's fate. With the bill already passed out of committee, and now set to be debated in the full Senate, there's sure to be a flurry of amendments offered looking to strengthen or weaken the proposed agency, which, as the bill is now, would be independent but housed within the walls of the Federal Reserve.

Wishing for Christie's Death

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 9:47 AM EDT

A memo released by the New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey's state teachers' union contained this "prayer": 

Dear Lord: This year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays ... I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.

Stay classy, folks! Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor, wants to reduce state aid to school districts by $820 million and has asked teachers to accept a one-year pay freeze. According to the New York Post, the "prayer" first appeared on "an NJEA Facebook page called "New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie's Pay Freeze." NJEA President Barbara Keshishian has apologized, awkwardly, to Christie: "Language such as that has no place in civil discourse. It was intended as humor, but it's not funny."

h/t Daily Intel, which adds, in response to Keshishian's statement, "That might be a little much. It was at least a little funny."

FreezeCrowd and the US Chamber of Commerce

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 9:06 AM EDT

The US Chamber of Commerce, America's big business lobby, is holding an internet video contest called "I Am Free Enterprise." The Chamber is offering serious money—"$100,000 in cash prizes for the most innovative, creative, compelling story!"—but the entry period has passed, so you can't join the competition. You can, however, gaze upon the entries with delight and childlike wonder. Perhaps the "best" of the bunch is this entry, by Eric Leebow, the CEO of "FreezeCrowd" (website here.)* Eric describes himself as "an Internet visionary entrepreneur who shoots for his dreams." He has a special idea. Watch:

If you're saying "wow, that sounds a lot like Facebook," well, you're not the only one. Eric's great idea hasn't gone viral quite yet—it only has 27,000 views so far. But if the Alexsey Vayner video resume saga is any guide, this video is about to catch fire. Eric already took quite a beating in an immense reddit thread last month, so things are starting to pick up steam. A highlight from the reddit thread:

WOW! I remember him coming to our VC firm and pitching this to us.

First off, this was about 3 years ago. So he's been in "coming soon..." mode since then.

Second, he said how he made a lot of money on google stock, but then lost it all paying for developers and in return got a half made project.

Third, he mentioned how this was going to destroy facebook, because you can basically tag people in a photo and see what other people they're friends with. When I alerted him that facebook already has this, he said that he thought of it first. I told him that's not really a good business model.

Fourth, after I told him our firm was not interested, he then e-mailed and called constantly trying to convince me that we were making a mistake. It got to the point that I was scared he'd just snap one day and come back shooting.

The best part about all of this is that the rules of the Chamber's contest stipulate that "The top 25 most-viewed videos will be eligible to win!" You're creating some perverse incentives there, guys.

*Obviously, a lot of this is almost too good to be true. Eric Leebow has a twitter handle and an immense web presence, but Martin Eisenstadt seemed real, too. Proceed with caution.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 12, 2010

Mon Apr. 12, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

US Army Corporal Shane Rager, left, provides security during a quality assurance check of the new road that extends from the Tani district center to Narizah village in Khost province, Afghanistan, on April 5, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Senior Airman Julianne M. Showalter.

Did Obama Take Liz Cheney's Advice?

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 8:23 AM EDT

Has the Obama administration taken Liz Cheney's tongue-lashing to heart? At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Thursday she blasted the White House for routinely dressing down Hamid Karzai and said the Afghan leader was "being treated to an especially dangerous and juvenile display from this White House."

Whether or not the administration heeded Cheney's warning, it is certainly softening its approach toward Karzai in recognition of the fact that "tough love" diplomacy was only driving a further wedge between the Afghan president and US officials. The New York Times reports on the administration's abrupt attitude change:

The difference in approach was evident in two recent scenes on Air Force One.

Scene 1, March 28: Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, visited reporters flying with the president from Washington to Kabul and promised that President Obama would take on the Afghan president for ignoring American demands on corruption and drug trafficking.

Scene 2, Friday: General Jones visited reporters, this time traveling with the president to Washington from Prague, and told them that Mr. Obama had sent Mr. Karzai a thank-you note expressing gratitude to the Afghan leader for dinner in Kabul. “It was a respectful letter,” General Jones said.

What happened between these two scenes? Mr. Karzai publicly lashed out against Western governments, hosted the president of Iran and said he would join the Taliban if the international community kept pressuring him.

Obama administration officials maintain that they are not going to return to the days when President George W. Bush and Mr. Karzai would have twice-monthly videoconferences. But the pivot reflects a recognition that public pressure on Mr. Karzai may have driven him away. “In some ways, we want to do more of the love part of ‘tough love,’ and less of the tough part,” a senior administration official said.
 

Liberal Plot to Save California Foiled...For Now

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 6:36 PM EDT

In January I spoke with UC-Berkeley linguist and progressive activist George Lakoff about his proposed referendum to repeal California's Propostion 13the infamous ballot initiative that mandated a 2/3 supermajority to approve tax-raising measures. For a state locked in a perpetual budget crisis (sound)—and with an ideologically polarized state legislatureLakoff's attempt to restore "majority rule" (as he put it), would have dramatically altered the most dysfunctional state government in the union.

As of Wednesday, however, things weren't looking so good for Lakoff's initiative. After sparring with state Attorney General (and presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee) Jerry Brown over wording changes, Lakoff has now withdrawn the measure. Although he plans to re-submit the referendum, even Lakoff isn't too optimistic about his odds of collecting the required signatures by the June deadline, telling supporters "the timeline will be tight." In other words, don't bet on it.

Who Gets the Credit for Taking Out Bart Stupak?

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 3:59 PM EDT

While the Tea Party right has applauded itself for driving Bart Stupak out of office for his role in passing health care reform, pro-choice advocates are claiming that it was pressure from the left that ultimately did him in. Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said she was “thrilled” to hear of the Michigan Democrat's decision to retire and credited the pro-choice campaign to support his primary challenger for pushing him out. “Connie Saltonstall is a wonderful candidate, and we moved very, very quickly to reach out to her,” said O’Neill. “NOW can take at least some credit for his stepping down…we really put her on a fast track.”

NOW, along with Planned Parenthood and NARAL, endorsed Saltonstall during the final days of the health care debate, accusing Stupak of holding the reform effort hostage to his anti-choice views. Though Stupak ultimately decided to support the bill after making a deal with top Democrats, he has been slammed by pro-choice advocates for having “needlessly jeopardized the historic health care reform law” in his fight to eliminate abortion coverage, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement, adding that the group would be “working hard” to back Saltonstall.