Mojo - December 2010

Could Gays Spoil the Special Forces?

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 3:34 PM EST

The Washington Times, for decades a Moonie-owned, money-hemorrhaging adventure in right-leaning reporting, has a most fascinating story today: "Special-operations troops think the elite force is facing difficulties by accepting open gays into one of the military's more politically conservative communities." The story's premise is that gays could wreak havoc on the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force pararescuers, and Marine recons. "Of particular interest," the Times' Rowan Scarborough writes, "is how Navy SEALs, the macho sea, air and land commandos who put great emphasis on physical prowess, will accept gays." Um, dude? You just answered your own question.

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The Danger of Driving Earmarks Underground

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 1:00 PM EST

The conservative war on earmarks succeeded this month in obstructing the Democrats' omnibus spending billa $1.1 trillion package full of lawmaker-designated spending on pet projects. But even at the height of their renewed anti-earmark crusade, Republicans have been lobbying for exceptions to their proposed ban: Even tea party hero Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for instance, argued that transportation projects should be exempt. In fact, there are a whole slew of workarounds to an earmark ban that could have some undesireable consequences. My colleague Siddhartha Mahanta flags a New York Times story explaining how legislators can quietly lobby federal agencies to funnel spending to pet projects through letters and phone callspractices cutely known as "lettermarking" and "phonemarking."

The earmark loopholes are reminscent of what's happened in Washington since Democrats imposed greater restrictions on lobbying. Rather than reduce lobbying, the new regulations simply drove a lot of activity underground: Official lobbyists have deregistered in droves, so their meetings with legislators don't have to be subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Instead of meeting with officials at the White House, where their visits must be logged, lobbyists have schmoozed with policymakers over lattes at the coffee shop across the street.

Likewise, the earmarks workarounds are largely invisible, eluding public scrutiny and accountability: as the Times reveals, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) sent a letter lobbying the Department of Education to designate funds for a school back home even as he railed against earmarks and federal stimulus spending. So you have a system in which lobbyists can push for pork-barrel spending, and legislators can work to fulfill such requests—both without having to be scrutinized.

As such loopholes are brought to light, it will be even harder for anti-earmark Republicans to dodge charges of hypocrisy. (Lawmakers like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have already been accused of as much, having lobbied to include some of the very earmarks in the omnibus spending bill he's attacked.) What's more, conservatives have also begun to fear that giving up congressionally designated earmarks will end up ceding too much control over spending decisions to the executive branch. In the end, it's probably just a matter of time before earmarks lose their stigma and the conservative crusade against the practice wanes once again.

*Update: Post has been truncated from original.

How to Earmark in Congress Without Really Trying

| Tue Dec. 28, 2010 12:29 PM EST

[Could driving pork-spending further underground actually help expose the hypocrisy of appropriations-happy Republicans? Read MJ reporter Suzy Khimm's take here.]

Let's say you're a freshman lawmaker on his way to Washington with a mandate (allegedly) to shrink the size of government, and you take a hacksaw to federal spending. Trolling for low-hanging fiscal fruit, you've fixed your attention on earmarking, that pesky practice of burying spending appropriations for your constituents in larger bills. A little anti-earmark handwringing should burnish your tea party cred, your top advisers say. And hitching a ride on the DeMint/Coburn anti-earmark train couldn't hurt.

But a knack for securing federal funding for much-needed projects back home can buy a lifetime of support (see the late Murtha, John). Earmark foes, old and new, know they have to commandeer money, but without the appearance of doing so. Their political futures depend on it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to sidestep the formal appropriations process.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 28, 2010

Tue Dec. 28, 2010 6:30 AM EST

Santa Claus, with an assist from one of his "elves," rappels from an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter to greet children of the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons at Kadena, Japan, Dec. 17, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lakisha Croley

Corn on "Hardball": Can the Birthers Ever Be Convinced?

Mon Dec. 27, 2010 7:11 PM EST

David Corn and Clarence Page joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss newly elected Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie's efforts to end the birther controversy, once and for all.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

GOP's Immigration Plan: They're Taking Our Jobs!

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 12:58 PM EST

Despite the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric from some Republicans on the campaign trail, the newly empowered GOP could be walking a tightrope when it actually comes to tackling the issue in the next Congress. The anti-immigration wing of the conservative base will demand that Republicans fulfill their promises to crack down on "birthright citizenship," among other fringe issues. But in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the GOP also risks alienating Latino voters in key swing states if the party leadership adopts the flamethrowing stance of its far-right flank. In the face of such a conundrum, the Republicans' game plan on immigration has begun to take shape: Keep focus on the economy by attacking illegal immigrants for taking away jobs from American citizens.

In an interview with Politico, incoming House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) explained the strategy:

Smith's first two hearings will focus on expanding E-Verify, a voluntary electronic system for checking the immigration status of workers that President Barack Obama supports and scrutinizing the administration's record on worksite enforcement.

"They are what I call 70 percent issues—70 percent or more of the American people support those efforts," Smith said. "I think they are popular across the board, and I think they will be appreciated by all American workers regardless of their ethnicity or background or anything else...The focus is on creating jobs and protecting jobs." 

With unemployment rates still stubbornly high, it's probably the most compelling argument the GOP can make to justify a bigger crackdown on illegal immigration. Immigration researchers have shown that, in the long term, expanding immigration raises a nation's economic productivity and average income. But during a recession, there's research indicating that immigration hurts employment rates and income levels for native-born workers in the short term, according to a widely circulated study by economist Giovanni Peri. Defending the long-term benefits of immigration will be a hard sell when average Americans are still struggling to cope with the recession, with an economic turnaround still no sure thing.

That doesn't mean that Republican solutions will necessarily help American citizens get more jobs or improve the economy. In fact, many businesses have resisted the mandatory use of programs like E-Verify, arguing that such requirements are onerous and costly. In a case that's currently before the Supreme Court, the Chamber of Commerce has challenged a Arizona law that revokes licenses from businesses that refuse to use E-Verify to verify the immigration status of its employees. According to Peri, rather than forcing businesses themselves to crack down on illegal immigrants, the government could help native workers by making its legal immigration system more flexible, adjusting visa levels to fit the needs of the economy. But such nuanced solutions might not get much airtime at a time when political leaders can still capitalize on economic fear and uncertainty.

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Haley Barbour's Latest Headache

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 9:17 AM EST

For years, Republican Haley Barbour prowled the halls of Congress as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. His shop, Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers, represented the likes of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, defense contractor Raytheon, and even the "Kurdistan Democratic Party USA," according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Then Barbour won the governor’s seat in hard-hit Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union. But while Barbour's title may have changed, his lavish lobbyist lifestyle apparently has not.

Politico reports on Monday that Barbour, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, has made ample use of his state's 12-seater Cessna airplane—for both official business and, well, not-so-official fundraising jaunts and pleasure trips. According to flight records dating back to 2007 (Barbour was elected into office in 2003), Barbour has used to Cessna to whisk him around the country at a cost of $500,000 to taxpayers over the past three years, jetting to locales like New York, Las Vegas, and Washington. Sometimes the trips are for state business, other times they're for posh fundraisers or football games.

In one example, Barbour flew to Las Vegas in March 2010 (using taxpayer dollars) for what was listed in state records as a "project meeting." But according to news reports, Barbour had an expensive fundraiser to attend as well, where donors to his state political action committee could pay $5,000 to drive a stock car at a local racetrack and hobnob with wealthy casino owner Steve Wynn.

Here's more from Politico:

Also among Barbour's state-paid trips are leisure jaunts, where he is—in his staff's view—acting as a sort of plenipotentiary ambassador from Mississippi. Barbour flew to the Cotton Bowl on the state's dime in 2009, as the Ole Miss Rebels beat the Texas Tech Red Raiders 47-34. He attended the second round of the 2010 SEC basketball tournament, in which Ole Miss and Mississippi State were both playing.

In September 2008, Barbour flew on the state plane from Jackson to Gulfport to attend a Don King-promoted fight and a tribute to himself at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. [Barbour spokesman Dan] Turner e-mailed that the event "was part of a combined tribute to Gov. Barbour/promotional event televised to a national audience to remind the public that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was open for tourism after Hurricane Katrina."

To Mississippi's feeble "good government" groups, Barbour is crossing the line.

"What Barbour is doing is that he's playing the system. He's raising as much money as he can, whenever he can and using the state plane to do," said Lynn Evans, president of the watchdog group Common Cause Mississippi.

In response, a Barbour spokesman said the governor "is an effective marketing tool in a state that really needs it."

The revelations about Barbour's jet-setting couldn't come at worse moment for the popular governor, who also chairs the Republican Governor's Association. A recent cover story in the Weekly Standard caused a firestorm when Barbour, asked about growing up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, responded: "I just don't remember it being that bad." The claim, among several others, elicited cries of racism, and forced Barbour to issue a response to the article rebutting those criticisms and clarifying that the period in question "was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted at that time."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 27, 2010

Mon Dec. 27, 2010 6:30 AM EST

Secretary of the Navy Ray E. Mabus, center, boards a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft after speaking with U.S. Marines and Sailors at Forward Operating Base Jaker in Afghanistan Dec. 17, 2010. Senior leaders made a day trip to Sangin and Marjah to speak with Marines and Sailors in support of the International Security Assistance Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres/Released)

Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

| Sat Dec. 25, 2010 2:34 PM EST

As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a godly man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.

Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like one in every 100 Americans today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not by giving alms, but in part by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.

As we described in one of our earliest posts on Solitary Watch, Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.

Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.  

Deck the Halls With Partisan Warfare

| Fri Dec. 24, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Ah, Christmas in Washington. 'Tis the season for holiday cheer, good tidings—and political attacks wrapped up in cringeworthy yuletide metaphors. Cultural conservatives have long accused liberals of waging a "war on Christmas," and both parties have been blamed for grinchy behavior this year. Below, ten ways the holiday has been used for political ends:

1) Though revived by the rise of Christian fundamentalists, the purported "war on Christmas" goes way back in American history. Industrialist Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite, blamed Jews for stifling Christmas carolers and school-based religious demonstrations, notes Time magazine. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas...shows the venom and directness of [their] attack," Ford writes in 1921.

2) A few decades later, Communists were blamed for destroying the holiday. Notes Time Henry Ford in 1919: WikmediaHenry Ford in 1919: Wikmediahere, quoting a pamphlet from the John Birch Society: "One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas." The title of the 1959 pamphlet: "There Goes Christmas?!"

3) The controversy over public nativity scenes came to a head in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled in County of Allegheny vs. American Civil Liberties Union that it was illegal for governments to endorse Christianity—though governments could "celebrate the season" through joint displays of Christmas trees and menorahs. The compromise hardly settled the matter, however: Every year, local governments wrestle with disputes over whether Baby Jesus has been overshadowed by menorahs and the trappings of secular Christmas.

4) In 2005, Bill O'Reilly helped revived the "war on Christmas" meme, going after retailers like Toys 'R Us who had failed to use the word "Christmas" in their advertising. "Surely they understand the anger that is going to be engendered among millions of Americans who feel their holiday is being denigrated and disrespected," O'Reilly said. "I think it's all part of the secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality out of the public square."

Setting up the Capitio Christmas Tree.: Xinhua/Zumapress.comSetting up the Capitol Christmas Tree. Xinhua/Zumapress.com

5) That year, Reverend Jerry Falwell also led a crusade against governments that labeled Christmas trees as "holiday trees." "'We want to make sure that Christmas is safe, but we know that it is not,'' Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a Falwell-backed conservative legal group, told the Baltimore Sun. ''When people seek to rename what otherwise is a secular symbol simply because of the name 'Christmas,' that shows the depths of political correctness run amok." Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bent to the pressure by ordering that the Capitol Holiday Tree be rechristened the Capitol Christmas Tree.

6) President George W. Bush also experienced a fierce backlash from some conservative Christians for sending out holiday cards that wish 1.4 million friends and supporters a happy "holiday season"—a generic greeting that some activists interpreted as a war on the religious holiday. "This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told the Washington Post. Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," added Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative website WorldNetDaily. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

7) Liberals have tried to turn the tables in the Christmas wars, arguing that their conservative opponents are the ones who are truly obstructing the Christmas spirit through needlessly punitive public policies. In 2005, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) used the holiday as a political bludgeon in a legislative fight over the mininum wage: "Democrats believe that Congress should act on the true meaning of Christmas—hope, generosity, and goodwill toward others," said the Maryland Democrat. "Unfortunately, our Republican friends seem to have forgotten the meaning of Christmas."

The 2005 Bush holiday card.The 2005 Bush holiday card.

8) More recently, Republican lawmakers have invoked Christmas to slam Democrats for extending the current lame duck session. Attacking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's ambitious plans for the lame duck, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) declared: "It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing—frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff." Sen. Jim DeMint similarly blasted the Democratic effort to push through the START treaty and omnibus spending bill before Christmas as "sacrilegious." DeMint registered his objections by threatening to read entire bills aloud on the floor—eating up what valuable floor time was left—and his threat successfully got the omnibus bill pulled off the floor.

9) Democrats hit back by accusing Republicans of taking Christmas away from the middle-class during the bruising tax-cut debate, as Politico notes. "Our Republican colleagues are playing Santa for the millionaires and Scrooge for the middle class," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). "For those who make over $1 million, they want to give them a big, fat check averaging $104,000 with a bow on it. For our children, they want to give them a big, fat $4 trillion bill to be paid back with interest for generations to come. I guess that's their version of 'Happy Holidays, America.'"

10) These days, Christmas may mostly be an excuse for Washington lawmakers to bring a stockingful of puns and groan-inducing metaphors into the public discourse. Introducing a debt-reducting bill last week, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted: "We ought to deck the halls of Congress with some fiscal restraint."