Mojo - June 2010

Labor, Guns, and Money

| Thu Jun. 17, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, the National Rifle Association scored a major victory when the gun rights lobby persuaded House Democrats to exempt it from legislation intended to reign in the campaign finance free-for-all ushered in by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The move has sent other groups scrambling to create their own carve-outs, ramping up their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Among those seeking a deal of their own are a handful of labor unions, which have largely criticized the Citizens United ruling while also taking advantage of its loosened restrictions.

On Tuesday afternoon, representatives from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) met with top Democratic leaders who are involved with the bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act, to push for additional changes that would blunt the legislation’s impact on unions. "I think there’s just overreach in this bill," said Chuck Loveless, director of AFSCME’s legislative department, who attended the meeting and said that "key people" were involved, though he declined to name them.

While many have warned that Citizens United would unleash a flood of corporate spending in elections by relaxing campaign finance rules, labor unions have been some of the first groups to try out tactics that would have previously been forbidden. AFSCME, along with the AFL-CIO and SEIU, has yet to take a formal position on the bill. Their support, like the NRA's, could be critical to its passage, particularly since a host of conservative groups have come out against the legislation in the wake of the NRA's deal. (And 45 liberal organizations have threatened to pull their support from the bill if the NRA exemption isn't taken out.)

But while the SEIU has suggested that the bill doesn't go far enough, groups like the AFL-CIO and AFSCME are seeking to roll back some of the DISCLOSE Act's restrictions and regulations, arguing that unions should be treated differently than corporations. And a flurry of last-minute lobbying over the bill has erupted since news of the NRA's deal broke on Monday. "Currently we are discussing our concerns with members of Congress," said AFL-CIO press secretary Amaya Tune. According to Loveless, AFSCME is pushing for two major changes to the bill, which will require campaign ads to disclose all the names of the corporations, unions, and other groups that fund them.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 17, 2010

Thu Jun. 17, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

US Army Spc. Michael Rockwell, a combat infantryman with 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army Europe, scans the surrounding mountains for threats during a patrol outside Forward Operating Base Baylough in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on June 12, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Spc. Eric Cabral.

TBA Energy Package Coming in July?

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

President Obama didn't give much direction on this front in his address last night, but the White House has apparently told Senate Democrats to gear up for a July fight over energy legislation.

Via Mike Allen:

Phil Schiliro, the White House congressional liaison, has told the Senate to aim to take up an energy bill the week of July 12, after the July 4 break (and after the scheduled final passage of Wall Street reform). Kagan confirmation will follow, ahead of the summer break, scheduled to begin Aug. 9. The plan is to conference the new Senate bill with the already-passed House bill IN A LAME-DUCK SESSION AFTER THE ELECTION, so House members don’t have to take another tough vote ahead of midterms.

Of course, the biggest question remains whether this will include a cap on carbon dioxide, in addition to energy and oil-spill specific measures. I don't think we know much more about that from Obama's speech last night, in which the president studiously avoided the terms "carbon" and "climate change." I think that may well doom ithe chances of a price on carbon making it into a legislative session this year, but hey, folks have been writing obituaries for the climate bill for months now. Whether there's any appetite for including a carbon cap and price depends a lot on what the White House leans on the Senate to do in these next few weeks.

The Liberal Netroots Reboots in North Carolina

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

The liberal netroots was dealt a big blow last week with the defeat of Bill Halter in the Arkansas Senate primary against Sen. Blanche Lincoln. But the activist left is now trying to regroup and is now rallying behind another Democratic Senate prospect who’s challenging the party establishment. On Tuesday, MoveOn.org came out in support North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who’s running against former state Rep. Cal Cunningham in the Democratic primary to challenge Sen. Richard Burr (R-SC).

The MoveOn endorsement marks the culmination of the national netroots support that’s coalesced behind Marshall, whose supporters include Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and ActBlue, which has raised over $45,000 in grassroots donations for her campaign. Marshall bested Cunningham by 9 points in the May 5 primary but didn’t break 40 percent of the vote, forcing a run-off that will be held next Tuesday. The pick of the Democratic National Committee, Cunningham has raised almost twice as much money as Marshall, heavily bolstered by nearly $80,000 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But Marshall has tried to use her outsider status to her advantage, painting herself as an unabashed progressive who’s running against the Beltway status quo.

But when it comes down to it, there’s not much to differentiate the two candidates in terms of policy views. In a televised debate last week, they “mirrored each other’s positions on offshore drilling (they oppose it), the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy governing gays in the military (they want to repeal it) and even used similar language on illegal immigration ("we cannot deport our way" out of the problem, they said.),” as Politico reports. And either candidate would face an uphill battle to unseat Burr, whose favorability ratings remain low but still leads both Democratic prospects by double digits. The main difference seems to be between who’s received the blessing of the party establishment and who hasn’t. The liberal netroots has made it clear which side they're going to take.

"Like Oil and Water"

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 8:53 AM EDT

Following up on the ads unveiled earlier this week, Americans United for Change will today release another TV spot, this one targeting the Republicans who voted last week to nullify the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon dioxide. The measure failed by a vote of 47-53, but every single Republican and six Democrats voted for it.

Americans United is spending $40,000 to run the new ad targeting the GOP through the rest of this week on MSNBC, FOX, and CNN in the DC metro area. Here's the spot:

Sen. Levin Backs Security Co. Phase Out

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

If Carl Levin has his way, Afghanistan's booming private security industry will soon be a thing of the past. On Tuesday the Michigan Democrat, who chairs the powerful Senate armed services committee, threw his support behind a little-noticed plan announced by Hamid Karzai late last year to phase out the use of security companies within two years. During his inaugural address in November, the Afghan president said he intended for "Afghan security entities" to take over the work currently handled by local and international firms.

Given the Obama administration's go-for-broke counterinsurgency strategy, and the involvement of powerful local interests (including multiple members of the Karzai clan) in the security business, Karzai's timetable is viewed as unrealistic. But Levin, whose panel has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into security firms in Afghanistan, said the American and Afghan governments "need to take concrete steps to achieve that goal."

In prepared remarks, Levin criticized PSCs for undermining counterinsurgency efforts, including by setting back initiatives to train Afghan police and soldiers, a crucial piece of the Obama administration's strategy. Levin's comments, which were submitted into the congressional record but not delivered publicly, were included in his opening statement for an Afghanistan-themed hearing held by the armed services committee—one abruptly cut short on Tuesday (and rescheduled for Wednesday morning) after Gen. David Petraeus briefly fainted while fielding questions.

"Our reliance on private security contractors—who often draw on militia forces—is empowering local powerbrokers and warlords who operate outside the government’s control," Levin said. "As stated in one recent military analysis of Kandahar, 'what used to be called warlord militias are now Private Security Contractors.'"

The widespread hiring of private security contractors undermines the Afghan security forces’ ability to recruit and retain personnel.  Some private security contractors working under Defense Department contracts, actively recruit those with ANA or ANP experience. Our Committee’s investigation into private security contractors in Afghanistan has revealed that they are frequently paid more than Afghan security forces. And a Department official recently testified that one reason for high attrition rates among Afghan National Civil Order Police officers, for example, is that "many of them are recruited by higher paying private security firms."    
 


The threat that security contractors pose to mission success is not insignificant. In May 2010 the U.S. Central Command’s Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate reported that there were more than 26,000 private security contractor personnel operating in Afghanistan. Last week, General McChrystal acknowledged the problems arising from our contracting practices, specifically private security companies, and said that ISAF will be looking at what needs to be done. I hope that review will lay out a path to phase out the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan and to integrate those personnel into the Afghan National Security Forces.

Levin has put his finger on a major dillemma. NATO has become dependent on the services of local security providers, in many cases regional poobahs who command large militias. Matiullah Khan is a prime example. He is a former Afghan highway police commander who now has a large paramilitary force under his command in Oruzgan Province. His fighters both guard convoys (charging as much as $1,200 per truck) and fight alongside US special forces soldiers. Through Khan's ties to NATO, he has amassed wealth and power—despite the fact that he is effectively running an operation considered illegal by the Afghan government, which licenses security outfits. (Khan's operation is unlicensed nor is it a company per se.)

By funding operations like Khan's, as well as those that are said to have ties to the Afghan president's half-brother and Kandahar troublemaker Ahmed Wali Karzai (or AWK as he's locally known), American and international forces are creating a parallel power structure that competes with the central government they are trying to prop up with anti-corruption, rule of law, and other capacity building initiatives. It is hard to see the powerbrokers who NATO has effectively empowered talking kindly to any efforts to shut down the private secuirty private, let alone fully integrate their militias with the Afghan security forces. It would be nice to hear Gen. Petraeus' thoughts on the topic when Tuesday's postponed hearing resumes this morning.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 16, 2010

Wed Jun. 16, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

A double rainbow captured over the tents at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. Photo via the US Army by Spc. Michael Bower.

New Orleans Jail Makes Room for BP Execs

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 2:59 PM EDT

OK, not quite. It’s true that New Orleans is floating plans to expand its local jail, the notorious Orleans Parish Prison, even though it already has the largest number of jail beds per capita of any city in the nation. It’s also true that most of us would like to see some BP executives there, languishing in pre-trial detention along with the hundreds of poor New Orleanians who can’t make bail after committing minor offenses. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this happen. But its good to know that there will be plenty of room for Tony Hayward and his entourage if it does.

Yesterday, the ACLU of Louisiana issued the following statement:

The ACLU of Louisiana calls on the New Orleans City Council to reject Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s plan to expand Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) to 5,832 beds, large enough for 1 bed for every 60 residents. OPP, currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, is already the largest per capita jail in the nation and the City’s own Planning Commission has recommended a smaller sized jail. The Sheriff’s request is scheduled to be heard by the Council this week…

[T]he Sheriff has been unable or unwilling to reveal what types of crimes people in his jail are charged with. “The scary thing is that he can’t even tell us who he is housing in the jail. Public drunkenness? Marijuana possession? He simply won’t tell us or doesn’t know,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director for the ACLU of Louisiana.

What is known is that from January 2007 until June 2009, on average just 2.24% arrests in New Orleans were for violent felonies. 86% of arrests were for misdemeanors, municipal, traffic violations, and other arrests. At the same time, roughly a third of the prisoners held at OPP are federal and state prisoners who have already been sentenced and should be held at state or federal facilities.

The expanded jail would provide one bed for every 60 residents of Orleans Parish. In comparison, the ACLU points out, the ratio in New York City is one jail bed for every 413 residents; in Los Angeles it is one for every 504; and in Chicago it is one for every 542.

Louisiana is known for its swift–if frequently unfair–justice. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned “looters” that they would be sent “straight to Angola.” Instead, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Burl Cain, hurried down to New Orleans to set up a temporary jail in the bus station, known as “Camp Greyhound.” Any people suspected of stealing a quart of milk for their starving children were summarily locked up–if they weren’t simply shot by cops or vigilantes.

Don’t expect anything of the sort for those BP execs. Eric Holder says “nothing is off the table,” but there’s little chance we’ll ever see them behind bars. Here’s what McClatchy’s Scott Hiaasen wrote on the subject last week:

CREW Demands Investigation of Alvin Greene

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 2:52 PM EDT


A watchdog group has joined the mounting number of political players demanding an investigation of Alvin Greene’s improbable victory in the South Carolina Senate primary. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a statement Tuesday outlining their concerns with Greene, whom they described as "the questionable Democratic candidate for South Carolina Senate." CREW explains:

In a letter to South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, CREW asked for an investigation into whether Mr. Greene was induced to run for the Senate in violation of South Carolina law.   
 


CREW also filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that primary-winner Greene and three other candidates in the June 8, 2010 Democratic primary in South Carolina: Gregory Brown, Ben Frasier and Brian Doyle and their campaign committees, violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and FEC regulations by failing to file mandatory disclosure reports prior to the election.
 


Melanie Sloan, CREW's Executive Director, said “The people of South Carolina have a right to fair, transparent and fraud-free elections.  Paying candidates to run for office and concealing the sources of campaign funds undermines the integrity of the electoral process and threatens our democracy.”

Last week, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) alleged that Greene, Brown (his own primary opponent), and Frasier were “plants.” Pointing to these candidates’ failure to file the requisite FEC paperwork about campaign donations and expenditures, Clyburn demanded an inquiry by the US Attorney’s office in South Carolina. Likewise, Greene’s defeated primary opponent Vic Rawl asked that the South Carolina Democratic Party also investigate the results, alleging irregularities in the voting results and other anomalies at the polls. But no proof any shenanigans has surfaced so far, leading some to begin wondering whether Greene might have actually just…won.

Why Care About Military Fakers?

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

It's disturbingly easy to misrepresent your military service in workaday America. In a culture that's disposed to think of all veterans as heroes (on the right) or victims (on the left), few civilians have the inclination or the intestinal fortitude to scrutinize someone else's service record and assent to judge another's honor or Americanness. As a consequence, few among us know what a long-form DD-214 is, much less how to read one. (It's a service member's discharge form, which shows the type of discharge, their rank, awards earned, and the like.) 

That said, veterans themselves have a high sensitivity to, and low threshold for, military fakers. Which makes it difficult for Americans in the public sphere—politicians, say—to misrepresent their service.

Mark Kirk is learning that now. As a 21-year veteran of the Navy Reserve's intelligence community, there's no doubt that the Republican Illinois congressman, who's now running for Senate, has had a full, eventful military career. Yet in the past few weeks, journalists—spurred on by the work of a determined blogger and reservist, Terry Welch—have discovered a number of misrepresentations and misrememberings in Kirk's service claims. Did he win an intel officer of the year award? (No.) Did he "deploy" to Afghanistan? (No.) And now, there's a new revelation: When Kirk said he'd "never violated Defense Department policies," he was either fuzzy on important details of his career—not typical of a career naval aviation intelligence officer—or he was knowingly telling a mistruth.

According to Welch, Kirk was disciplined after partisan political campaigning while on duty, including Tweeting his wherabouts on a Pentagon mission: