[UPDATE]: The Senate today accepted the House's exemption for car dealers from oversight by a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The two leaders of the House-Senate conference process—Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.)—opposed the exemption, but acceded to colleagues who had pushed hard for the exemption.

Of all the special interest groups swarming Washington's financial reform debate, you could argue that the award for Most Pesky belongs to the auto dealer lobby. For the past year, auto dealers and their water-carriers on Capitol Hill have vehemently opposed new oversight and regulation under the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose jurisdiction would include mortgage brokers, payday lenders, and other businesses that lend money to consumers. Auto dealers make up 80 percent of the nation's automotive loans. Nevertheless, in the House's reform bill, they succeeded in winning an exemption from the bureau's oversight. (The Senate did not exempt them.) Now, in the latest announcement by top House members trying to reconcile the House and Senate's respective bills, the House is offering an amendment that would ensure dealers are exempt from oversight in the final bill.

If any type of retailer and/or lender cries out for new oversight, it's auto dealers. In 2009, dealer-related complaints ranked fourth-highest among all types of consumer-based complaints, at 26,019, after cell phone service companies, TV companies, and—big surprise—banks. The Center for Responsible Lending has reported that dealers frequently peddle higher interest rates to customers than would a regular bank, and that these "markups" amount to an extra $20 billion a year for consumers.

Throughout the past year's reform fight, groups ranging from the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society and the National Consumer Law Center have pushed hard to include dealers in any new consumer bureau's purview. (The military is especially active on dealer regulation because, as Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has reported, shady dealers often prey on vulnerable servicemen and -women.) In a May letter to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who had sought an exemption for dealers in the Senate's bill, military and consumer advocacy groups wrote:

For example, some car dealers engage in "powerbooking," a scam in which the victim does not have access to the documents the dealer submits to the finance company and therefore has no knowledge of the phantom add-ons the auto dealer claims are part of the vehicle. Some dealers falsify loan applications, in which case the victim does not have access to the loan documents that falsifies pay stubs and statements of income. In another scam, the auto dealer promises to pay off the lien on the victim’s trade-in at the time of sale, but does not, so the consumer is unknowingly left with the responsibility to pay off the new car as well as the car that was traded in. There is no way for the victim to know in advance that the dealer doesn’t intend to pay off the lien. Senator Brownback’s modified amendment would do nothing to stop these abuses.

The House and Senate's new consumer protection bureau was created, lawmakers have said, to reign practices like powerbooking and auto lien fraud. Even President Obama has personally stepped in to fend off an auto-dealer exemption, saying in May, "The fact is, auto dealer-lenders make nearly 80 percent of the automobile loans in our country, and these lenders should be subject to the same standards as any local or community bank that provides loans." The House conferees, who meet again this week to hash out differences in their reform bill, apparently don't agree.

This just in. Joseph Wurzelbacher, the Ohio fellow who became oddly famous during the 2008 campaign as "Joe the Plumber," is joining the "Take Our Country Back Tour," the conservative political calvacade that has featured Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, and right-leaning country singers. These rallies, according to organizers, are intended to encourage Americans to vote for candidates who believe "in the right of the American people—and only the American people—to determine the course and destiny of the United States of America." The next of these conservative shindigs is scheduled for June 26 in Oklahoma CIty. Beck and Karl Rove are headlining the gig.

A press release announcing Joe the Plumber's participation includes this quote from the right's favorite Everyman stand-in: "We need to elect 'Americans,' not Republicans or Democrats." The press release did not explain why JTP chose to put single quotation marks around the word "Americans." Nor did it note whether Karl Rove will present this same message, when he and JTP share the stage in OKC.

The press release also included this remark from the Uncertified Plumber Formerly Known as Wurzelbacher:

Growing up, my dad regularly had me read the newspaper,. With the dictionary right next to me, every time I didn't know a word he would say, 'Look it up.' That is part of my message to the American people: Stop listening to other people and 'Look it up!' You were blessed to be born in this country, with this blessing comes responsibility.

Yet last year, JTP hardly celebrated the importance of newspapers and the media. While covering the Gaza crisis for Pajamas Media—yes, you read that correctly—he said that reporters should not be allowed to cover wars:

I don't think journalists should be anywhere allowed war [sic]. I think media should be abolished from, you know, reporting... I think the media should have no business in it.

Wurzelbacher's main focus now, the press release stated, is "to bring back 'American pride' through individual responsibility, accountability, and self-education."

JTP in the Middle East:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to the White House for a presidential spanking over some jaw-dropping remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone, which profiles the general in an issue that hits newsstands on Friday. The article, fittingly titled The Runaway General, features highly critical comments about senior Obama administration officials including National Security Advisor James Jones (a "clown," an unnamed aide remarks), Vice President Joe Biden ("Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?" another anonymous aide quips), and the president himself.

The blogs are ablaze with speculation about whether McChrystal will keep his job over this flap, which is really no small manner. McChrystal has effectively undermined the president's authority—and at the worst time possible too, since things are really not going terribly well in Afghanistan presently. For what it's worth, McChrystal says he's sorry for shooting his mouth off:

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.

Heads are already starting to roll over the debacle. The first to go? McChrystal's civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who arranged access to the general and his inner circle. Expect more fallout in the days to come. 

David called it last week, and now the Democrats have delivered. The Democratic National Committee today released new ads starring Joe Barton (R-Texas) and his BP apology.

The ad, "How Republicans Would Govern," feature's Barton's now infamous "I apologize" line, as well as several other Republicans who have been critical of the government's treatment of BP. The ad will run on national cable this week.

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitientiary at Angola. His case has brought protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from a growing band of supporters, who believe that he was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, he has been fighting for his release in the courts. But yesterday, a ruling by a federal appeals court ensured that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox will remain right where he has been for the last three decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of America’s largest and most notorious prison.


US Army soldiers participate in a 2.35-mile run to celebrate the U.S. Army's 235th birthday on Forward Operating Base Farah, Afghanistan, on June 14, 2010. The Soldiers are assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's Headquarters Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. Photo via the US Army by Senior Airman Rylan Albright.

International aid agencies have issued emergency appeals about the rising famine in the West African nations of Niger and Chad, which could eventually threaten millions. The Guardian reports today:

Starving people in drought-stricken west Africa are being forced to eat leaves and collect grain from ant hills, say aid agencies, warning that 10 million people face starvation across the region.

With food prices soaring and malnourished livestock dying, villagers were turning to any sources of food to stay alive, said Charles Bambara, Oxfam officer for the west African region. "People are eating wild fruit and leaves, and building ant hills just to capture the tiny amount of grain that the ants collect inside...

In Niger, which the United Nations classifies as the world's least developed country, starving families are eating flour mixed with wild leaves and boiled plants. More than 7 million people—almost half the population—currently face food insecurity in the country, making it the hardest hit by the crisis. According to UN agencies, 200,000 children need treatment for malnutrition in Niger alone. "Niger is at crisis point now and we need to act quickly before this crisis becomes a full-blown humanitarian disaster," said Caroline Gluck, an Oxfam representative in the country.

The real tragedy—and travesty—lies in the fact that there is food available in Niger, but starving people cannot afford to buy it.

With food prices spiralling, people are being forced to slaughter malnourished livestock, traditionally the only form of income. "When you walk through the markets, you can see that there is food here. The problem is that the ability to buy it has disappeared. People here depend on livestock to support themselves, but animals are being killed on the edge of exhaustion, and that means they are being sold for far less money. And on top of that, the cost of food basics has risen," explained Gluck. Compounding the crisis, thousands of animals have starved to death as villagers use animal fodder to feed themselves…

"This is just the beginning of the traditional hunger period, and people have already been forced to sell their livestock. This is very early for the alarm bells to be ringing, before Niger has even reached the start of the most critical part of the food calendar. You can imagine three to four months down the line how shocking the situation will be," said Gluck…"West Africa has traditionally not been very high on the developed world's priority list. The question now is how many people do we have to see die before the world will act?" she said.

In "Freemarkets and Famine in Niger," the Guardian's Jeevan Vasagar writes that during the most recent famine in Niger, in 2005, "free market dogma stopped the government giving out free food to the starving." He warns that this disaster could easily be repeated. Other analysts blamed the 2005 famine in large part on the economic policies of the IMF and EU, which contributed to a precipitous rise in the prices of staple grains.

This year, global economic factors, combined with a recent coup in Niger, are once again compounding a crisis caused by drought, and the toll in lives will be high. Just how high depends upon what the international community and Niger's government do next. One aid official told the Guardian that if relief does not come quickly, the crisis could reach the proportions of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, "during which an estimated 1 million people died due to drought and a slow response to the crisis both within the country and internationally."

When The New Yorker writer Ariel Levy profiled Mike Huckabee for the magazine this week, Israel and Judaism came up. A lot. Huckabee, the ex-Arkansas governor, current Fox TV showman, and rumored 2012 presidential hopeful, had just made his 14th trip to the Holy Land. He spoke to Levy at length about his philosemitism—in fact, the profile starts with Huck and buddy Pat Boone (yes, that Pat Boone) um, praising the Hebrews, sorta:

Both men were wearing yarmulkes. "I think what I should do is convert," Huckabee said, squinting in the sunshine. "This covers my bald spot completely."

Huckabee was a Baptist minister before he went into politics, but, like Boone and most of the other people in their group, he is crazy about Israel and extremely enthusiastic about Jews. "I worship a Jew!" Huckabee said. "I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they're kind of, like, 'You evangelicals love Israel more than we do.' I'm, like, 'Do you not get it? If there weren't a Jewish faith, there wouldn’t be a Christian faith!'"

Huckabee has a reputation as a good-natured jokester, but he turned deadly serious when discussing non-Jews in the Israeli vicinity, too:

"I have to be careful saying this, because people get really upset—there's really no such thing as a Palestinian," Huckabee told a rabbi in Wellesley, Massachusetts, at a kosher breakfast on the campaign trail in 2008. "That's been a political tool to try to force land away from Israel."

MoJo has a rich history documenting the rise of the so-called Christian Zionist movement, of evangelical Protestant conservatives courting Jews on the basis of a common fondness for the promised land. (We wrote here in 2004 how 7 in 10 white evangelicals believed Israel was "given to the Jews by God.") But, as Huckabee's yarmulke yukking (and the testimony of Texas firebrand pastor John Hagee) has shown, there's something tenuous and possibly patronizing about the Judaica fetish exhibited by evangelical Christians—who, after all, believe that when the Lord comes, he may be coming to Israel, but he won't be coming for its Jewish citizens.

So how about it, readers? Is Huckabee's fondness for Judaism sincere and enduring, or is it a patronizing fetish?

(H/t Wonkette)

The New York Times has a piece today looking at the special commission that President Obama put together to assess the Gulf disaster. The commission is supposed to assess what happened on the Deepwater Horizon and establish guidelines for how offshore drilling should proceed in the future. This part caught my eye, however, with remarks from commission co-chair William Reilly:

The investigative panel is not charged with determining whether offshore oil development can be conducted safely; rather, its mission is to show how it can resume with greater safeguards.
"The president was clear," Mr. Reilly said. "He was not inviting us to revise his energy policy. He said he was much more concerned to look ahead than look backward."

In other words, don't expect the commission to recommend a revision of the Obama adminstration's plan to expand offshore oil and gas development.

Call me crazy, but I think we might be missing a step here. Shouldn't the purpose of this commission be to first evaluate if offshore development can be done safely, and then, if it can be, to then figure out all the safeguards that need to be in place to prevent future BP-like catastrophes?

Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised to hear these remarks from Reilly in particular; he has significant ties to the oil industry. But maybe the rest of the spill commission, an impressive group collectively, will have more to say on that.

There are some other concerns raised about the commission in the Times piece. For one, it doesn't have any staff or budget yet, and probably won't convene its first meeting until mid-July. (The White House has asked Congress to pony up $15 million for the panel, which also hasn't happened yet.) The commission also lacks subpoena power right now, though some members of Congress want to pass a bill to grant it that authority.

You sometimes have to wonder why the state of Louisiana doesn’t just transform Angola prison into a year-round Christian camp meeting. As I've written before, under the tutelage of Warden Burl Cain, Angola has become a place where the only kind of rehabilitation on offer is Christian redemption.

I respect any kind of spiritual life prisoners might turn to for guidance or comfort. But pushing a particular doctrine on the ultimate captive audience is something else altogether. Fifteen years after Cain's arrival at Angola, there are seven evangelical churches on the prison's grounds. Its educational programs, inmate organizations, and to some extent even the venerable prison publication The Angolite are all dominated by a Christianity that leans powerfully toward the Southern Baptist Church. At today's Angola, being a self-proclaimed Christian—or better still, becoming a convict preacher—appears to be the best way to gain the kinds of special privileges that make prison life more bearable. Anyone who isn't interested is free to rot in a hell on earth—presumably in preparation for their eternal fate, since few men emerge from Angola's gates alive.

Yet the press tends to eat this stuff up, celebrating Burl Cain as a visionary who has transformed hardened criminals into hard-working, God-fearing souls. He has done this by governing the 5,000-man prison plantation, as one Baptist publication put it, "with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus."