Mojo - December 2010

The Radicalization of Peter King

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:31 PM EST

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), last seen calling WikiLeaks a terrorist organization, is back in the news after annnouncing plans to hold hearings next year on the radicalization of America's Muslim communities. King believes Muslim leaders have been less than helpful in combatting extremists in their ranks, and he'd like to find out why.

The timing is a little curious: Just two weeks ago, members of a mosque in Orange County became so concerned about a possible extremist in their ranks, they reported him to the FBI (It turned out he was an FBI agent; this is basically Fletch for the terror age). But the larger issue is King, whose ability to spot terrorists is unmatched. That is, he constantly spots terrorists where there are none at all, like an Icelandic clairvoyant tasked with inspecting construction sites for the presence of elves. Here's what he told Sean Hannity back in 2004, for instance, while promoting his novel, Vale of Tears:

"I would say, you could say that 80-85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists...Those who are in control. The average Muslim, no, they are loyal, but they don't work, they don't come forward, they don't tell the police."

80-85 percent! Run for your lives!

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Post-DREAM, What's the Next Immigration Battleground?

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:16 PM EST

The DREAM Act died in the Senate on Saturday morning when Democrats were unable to get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. The vote was 55-41, meaning that supporters were five votes short. Few expected the legislation to pass, so why did Senator Harry Reid decide to bring it up in the first place? The rationale was essentially political: First, it was meant to show Latinos and immigration advocates that Democrats were willing to push for a tough vote on the issue. Obama's enforcement-heavy approach to immigration has frustrated many, though it's unclear whether failed action on DREAM restores Democratic credibility.

Secondly, the vote was supposed to show how far right the Republican Party has moved on immigration. Only Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and the soon-departing Bob Bennett (R-Utah) voted for the bill, though five Democrats also crossed party lines to vote against it. The vote is essentially a curtain-raiser for the newly empowered GOP, whose incoming leadership has vowed to pursue an immigration crackdown.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who's slated to take a leadership role on immigration on the House Judiciary Committee, told the New York Times about some of his 2011 plans last week. "His priority as chairman would be to pass a bill he introduced last year that would also require the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration about the immigration status of workers," writes the Times. "Mr. King said his measure would increase pressure on employers to fire unauthorized immigrant workers by increasing their cost." King has also vowed to push for a bill on birthright citizenship, in addition to grilling top administration officials about Obama's border enforcement tactics. That being said, it will be tough for King and the other immigration hawks to pass any legislation through the Democrat-controlled Senate—and top Republicans could end up tamping down their crusades as 2012 gets closer, for fear of alienating Latino voters even further.

Immigration advocates, for their part, have resigned themselves to focusing their next fight on the state level. As I reported last month, there's a raging debate in many states over whether undocumented immigrant students should receive in-state tuition, financial aid, or admission to public universities:

While political gridlock is likely to continue in Washington, the university and student-led advocacy has helped advance a bill in California that would extend state financial aid to undocumented students...And a handful of conservative states are now moving to restrict undocumented immigrants' access to public education. Georgia passed legislation denying in-state tuition to undocumented students, joining Arizona and South Carolina.

It's unclear, though, how Washington Democrats will position themselves on immigration as 2012 gets closer. Certainly, they'll try to call the Republicans out on their most extreme rhetoric and positions, but Obama will also be pressed to defend his border enforcement policies. In 2010, the Democrats had Arizona's harsh immigration law to use as an unexpected rallying cry against anti-immigration Republicans—a cudgel that arguably helped them in states like Colorado and California. But Democrats might not have the same wedge issue two years from now, and a boldly pro-immigration stance might not help Obama in some of the states where he could have the most trouble.

Joe Nocera on the GOP's Financial Crisis Commission Fail

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 1:20 PM EST

Last week, the Republican members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released a nine-page, three-footnote minority report (or "preport," really—the actual report hasn't been released yet) blaming the financial crisis on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and government incentives to give loans to minorities. It's all poppycock, but that didn't stop them from writing it. The words "Wall Street," "interconnected," "shadow banking," "deregulation," and "credit default swap" were nowhere to be found in the GOPers' account of the crisis. But that didn't stop them from pretending it was a serious effort.

The Republican members of the panel have since been the target of much well-deserved mockery, but the New York Times' Joe Nocera really takes them to task in a long column (Nocera gives them credit for 13 pages, but he's counting the title page and table of contents): 

The Republican minority, fearing their view would get short shrift, pre-emptively put forward a CliffsNotes version of their theory of the case. In other words, they responded to a report that hasn't even yet been written, much less read and voted on by the members.

Is there such a word as "presponse?" Perhaps we should coin it to describe what took place this week at the F.C.I.C.

It would all be pretty laughable if it didn't have serious consequences. But it does. First, with the commission's Republican members having now issued this public, partisan smoke signal, the final product, no matter how rigorous, will be inevitably dismissed as a Democratic document. As a result, it will have little impact and, once Bill O'Reilly has finished mocking it, will be consigned to the dustbin of history. By creating this partisan rift, the Republicans have succeeded in tarring the entire enterprise.

[...]

Next year, the House of Representatives will be in Republican hands. High on the agenda for the new majority is its own version of financial reform. The Republicans hope to minimize the impact of the Dodd-Frank bill while at the same attacking — and fixing — what they see as the "true" culprit of the financial crisis.

To fix a problem, though, it helps to know what the problem is. The F.C.I.C., with all those witnesses and documents, could have really helped here. But the paper released by the commission's Republicans this week reads as if they couldn't be bothered. It simply reiterates longstanding Republican dogma that could have been written without a $6 million investigation. None of which bodes particularly well for the next two years of "financial reform."

The Republican minority feared "their view would get short shrift" because their view is wrong. As Nocera explains in the rest of his column (and as Andy Kroll and I have explained repeatedly on this blog), Fannie and Freddie didn't cause the financial crisis. Nor did the Community Reinvestment Act, the 1976 law that is meant to encourage some lenders to lend to minorities. Any serious, evidence-based examination of the financial crisis would not point to Fannie, Freddie, and the CRA as causes.

But in the world that the Republican members of the FCIC inhabit, it apparently doesn't matter that an idea is wrong: it still deserves time, attention, and $6 million of the taxpayers' money.

What an embarrassment. 

P.S.: Look, like Nocera, Andy and I are totally in favor of reforming Fannie and Freddie. As Nocera concludes, "Who Isn't?" Blaming the crisis on the government is a great GOP talking point. If Republicans just want to score political points, that will work great. But actually reforming Fannie and Freddie in a meaningful way is going to require a much deeper, more sophisticated understanding of the crisis. The FCIC minority report isn't making that any more likely.

Food Safety Bill Survives

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 1:10 PM EST

In an unanticipated turn of events, the Senate managed to pass the Food Safety and Modernization Act on Sunday with bipartisan support. The bill puts stricter safety standards on imported food, and requires larger producers to follow tougher rules. It also introduces provisions designed to prevent outbreaks of diseases like E.coli and salmonella.

"Families in Nevada and across America should never have to worry about whether the food they put on their table is safe," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. "Tonight we unanimously passed a measure to improve on our current food safety system by giving the FDA the resources it needs to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, without unduly burdening farmers and food producers."

The battle to get this legislation passed has been a long, frustrating, and sometimes hamfisted one. As Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer wrote last week, Congress had originally passed the bill earlier this month. But the next day, it turned out that senators had accidentally included tax provisions in the bill, which must originate in the House. That rendered the measure unconstitutional. And an attempt to include it as part of the Senate omnibus spending bill died last week along with the rest of the bill $1.1 trillion, earmark-loaded wish list.

Food saftey advocates and Hillwatchers were all-but-certain that the bill's passage was a lost cause. Its fate now rests in the hands of the House, where it will return this week.
 

While the GOP Was Stonewalling on START...

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 12:49 PM EST

On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he "cannot support" ratification of START, also known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a bilateral pact the US entered into with Russia nearly two decades ago to keep the countries for nuking one another into oblivion. McConnell accused Democrats of "rushing it right before Christmas."

"I think if they'd taken more time, I know the members of the Foreign Relations Committee spent a lot of time on this but the rest of us haven't, and so all of the sudden we're once again trying to rush things right here before Christmas Eve," McConnell said on CNN on Sunday. "I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me."

Now, START has been on the table since waaay back in April, when President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new treaty. So the idea that the Republicans have not had enough time to review it is, well, silly. Democratic staffers must be getting a little punchy over on the Hill, because last night they released an illustrated list of things that have happened in the time that senators have had to consider the treaty. The list:

A Few Things That Happened While Republicans Failed to Read the START Treaty:
  • Chilean Miners trapped and released.
  • Lady Gaga debuted her meat dress.
  • Lindsay Lohan returned to rehab, was released, and went back in again.
  • Major League Baseball 2010 season began and ended.
  • LeBron James announced, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach."
  • BP/Deep Horizon oil spill sprung and contained.
  • Donovan McNabb debuted with the Redskins, and was benched. Twice.
  • Spain won the World Cup.
  • The biggest overhaul of America’s financial laws in decades was debated and passed.
  • Prince William and Kate Middleton got engaged.
  • Larry King announced his retirement.
  • Conan returned to Late Night.
  • Kanye West released his latest album and apologized to former President George W. Bush.
  • Former President George W. Bush released his memoir, Decision Points.

State AGs Sue Bank of America

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 11:04 AM EST

As officials from all 50 states investigate the causes of the recent "Foreclosure-gate" fiasco, two attorneys general have decided to go after Wall Street on their own. On Friday, Arizona and Nevada's attorneys general slapped Bank of America and its mortgage servicing subsidiary with a blistering lawsuit (PDF). The states say the lender made "false assurances" about modifying homeowners' mortgages while foreclosing on them at the same time and gave "inaccurate and deceptive reasons" for rejecting loan modification requests. "Nevadans who were trying desperately to save their homes were unable to get truthful information in order to make critical life decisions," Nevada attorney general Catherine Masto said in a statement.

The states suing Bank of America are among the hardest hit in the housing meltdown. In the third quarter of 2010, Nevada led the country in foreclosures, with one in every 99 properties in foreclosure—five times the national average. What's more, 54 percent of all home sales in the Silver State were of foreclosed properties, according to RealtyTrac. Arizona had the fourth-highest foreclosure rate.

Here's more from the New York Times on Arizona and Nevada's suit:

Indeed, according to the lawsuits, Bank of America’s efforts were the most anemic of the big banks and were not confined to the Western states but rather “reflect a pervasive nationwide pattern and practice of conduct.” The lawsuit noted that Bank of America ranked last in “virtually every homeowner experience metric” monitored in a monthly report on the federal home loan modification program.

Ms. Masto of Nevada said her office’s findings were confirmed by interviews with consumers, former employees, third parties and documents. Former employees said that Bank of America’s modification staff was “chaotic, understaffed and not oriented to customers,” according to a news release. One former employee said, “The main purpose of the training is to teach us how to get customers off the phone in less than 10 minutes.”

Another employee said, “When checking on a borrower’s status, I often found that the modification request had not been dealt with or was so old that the request had become inactive. Yet, I was instructed to inform borrowers that they were ‘active and in status.’ One time I complained to a supervisor that I felt I always was lying to borrowers.”

In its defense, a Bank of America official told the New York Times that the bank was disappointed with the suit. The attorneys general, he added, didn't fully take into account Bank of America's efforts to help beleagured homeowners.

For Bank of America's foreclosure relief efforts, though, the devil is in the details. As the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel highlighted in its December report, Bank of America's success rate in the Obama administration's flagship relief effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), is a miserable 30 percent. By contrast, top performers like Wachovia Mortgage and HomeEq Servicing boast rates of 89 percent. Bank of America's mortgages, together with JPMorgan Chase and CitiMortgage, also comprised two-thirds of all loan modifications that are stuck in foreclosure limbo, waiting to either be approved or dumped from HAMP.

Protesting homeowners getting arrested? A top state investigator pledging to "put people in jail" for foreclosure fraud? When you put the data alongside the Arizona and Nevada attorneys general's body of evidence, it's not hard to see why American are so angry about the foreclosure debacle.

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A Bitter Pill for Aid Reform

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 7:00 AM EST

In Washington, interdepartmental turf wars start not with a bang but a paper.

For Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there's a pivotal skirmish brewing over development and diplomacy policy. In Clinton's corner are the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. But across the ring lurks Bob Gates' Defense Department, the undisputed heavyweight champ of intragovernmental cage fights.

The controversial paper in question? The sort-of-heralded inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), the State Department and USAID's sweeping review of current aid policy, complete with instructions on how to supposedly revolutionize it. The QDDR offers a number of suggestions for cutting costs, and argues for increasing the authority of US diplomats and aid officers around the world. The end goal: to transform (or restore, depending on whom you talk to) USAID's position as the preeminent aid delivery organization in the world. But the report also represents Clinton's steely determination to wrest control of civilian-driven projects back from a Pentagon that has absorbed the lion's share of the development-related burden over the past decade.

At a town hall meeting on Friday, Clinton said there are certain irrefutable truths at work: the US spends twelve times as much on defense as it does on development, and that's not likely to change. Another irrefutable truth: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced American soldiers into moonlighting as ambassadors and development experts. Clinton pointed out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have, over time, ceded control of diplomacy and development to the Pentagon.

For better or for worse, soldiers tend to serve as the first responders to major crises in places where the United States has vested interests—i.e., pretty much everywhere. But Clinton is selling the QDDR as a first step towards restoring balance in the defense/diplomacy relationship. The document calls for hiring 5,500 new foreign and civil service officers and granting expanded authority to current officers. But before civilians can win back territory from the military, State and USAID probably need to improve their own operations with better coordination and smarter management—if only to overcome the skepticism of foreign aid critics on Capitol Hill, such as incoming House foreign affairs committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has called for cuts in foreign assistance overseen by the State Department.

So Clinton's fight is not just with the Pentagon, but also with the Hill. And for ammo, she may need more than one dense, jargony report.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2010

Mon Dec. 20, 2010 6:30 AM EST

Soldiers from Company H (Hawk Co.), 3rd Squadron, 2nd Striker Cavalry Regiment, dismount from a their vehicle and prepare to raid a series of compounds Nov. 22, in the Maywand District, AfghanistanPhoto via US Army

TSA Misses Man's Loaded Handgun (VIDEO)

| Sat Dec. 18, 2010 8:49 PM EST

They're all up in your junk, but they'll probably miss your Glock. For all their newfangled body scanners and enhanced pat-downs, TSA agents at the country's eighth-busiest airport failed to stop Houston businessman Farid Saif as he boarded a commercial jet with a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun. "I mean, this is not a small gun," Seif said. According to a report by the local ABC affiliate:

Seif says it was an accident which he didn't realize until he arrived at his destination. He says he carries the glock for protection but forgot to remove it from his bag. He reported the incident as soon as he landed, shocked at the security lapse. "There's nothing else in there. How can you miss it? You cannot miss it," Seif said.

In fact, you can. A lot. The ABC report cites an anonymous source who says TSA workers fail 70 percent of their agency's routine spot checks and that "two weeks ago, TSA's new director said every test gun, bomb part or knife got past screeners at some airports." That's an incredible statement in any case, but coming as it does on the heels of the controversy over passengers' civil liberties and the government's (supposedly) tougher security measures, it's unconscionable.

Adding fuel to the fire: Seif is reportedly an Iranian-American, and pro-profiling conservatives are certain to ask why he wasn't given extra scrutiny before he boarded his Continental Airlines flight in the company's hub airport, George Bush International. (Those conservatives likely will overlook the fact that Seif is a Texan American, and the CEO of a Houston-based oil-services company, to boot). Regardless of a passenger's race, creed, color, or origin, though, you'd like to think that airline screeners can spot the great big locked-and-loaded Austrian-made hand cannon in your carry-on.

From Cayenne to Viagra: The IRS' Dos and Don'ts of Health Care Spending

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 6:17 PM EST

It's that most wonderful time of the year when those of us lucky enough to have jobs, jobs with benefits no less, get to figure out how much to set aside for medical expenses to come. We can sign up Flexible Spending Arrangements, or FSAs, set up to help employees pay for some of what their health plans won't cover. (Also, ever since GWB signed the Medicare bill into law in 2003, consumers who go it alone have the option of setting aside some of their pre-tax dollars into Health Savings Accounts, bypassing coverage altogether.) Whatever is set aside in a FSA is use-it-or-lose-it so it helps to know what you can submit for reimbursement. What's allowed will change some next year because of the health care bill. Namely, drugs you buy over-the-counter, from Advil to NyQuil, will no longer qualify. But lots of other things still will. The IRS' list suggests over and over that whatever you want to be reimbursed for needs to be medically necessary to treat an illness, a medical condition, a sick child, or the like. But not every entry on this 14-page list follows that logic, and there are some bizarre inclusions. Some that stand out:

Cayenne Pepper: Yes, so long as you include "a note from a medical practitioner outlining the specific medical condition that exists and how this pepper is to be used."

Ear Piercing: No, "not even if performed by a physician."

Lip Balm: No

Petroleum Jelly: Yes

Controlled Substances (illegal substances and drugs): "Illegal substances purchased outside of the United States [are] not reimbursable." Wow, if they hadn't have included this bit I totally would have tried to expense my trafficked cocaine from Juarez. No reference to in-country purchases.

Invisalign: Yes, covered. Invisalign is basically very high-end braces. Invisible retainers that refashion teeth into a flashy set of straight whites, covered.

ProActiv: Acne treatments are serious business, and cost serious dough. This one, that comes with infomercials and endorsements from Katy Perry and the like, get specific mention. See also, Retin-A

Rogaine/Propecia: Yes; Hair Growth Medications/Transplants/Procedures: No

Memory Foam Mattress Topper: Yes, with doc's permission, must include "a newspaper advertisement" indicating cost difference.

Mastectomy and Related Specialty Bras: Nope, not unless "a doctor's or medical practitioner's note is received stating that this will help in treating the mental health of the patient."

Dancing Lessons: Yes, if to treat a specific medical condition. (We likely have the Dancing with the Stars lobby to thank for this one.)

Feminine Hygiene Products: No, "considered general use items." As opposed to petroleum jelly, and bandages, and laxatives (also both Yeses).

Diapers: For healthy babies (and adults, see Adult Incontinence), No. Super unfortunate since gov't programs like WIC and food stamps don't cover diapers. This alongside the statistic, c/o a Huggies study, that 1 in 3 families can't afford enough diapers for their kids.

Viagra: Of course! "Viagra prescribed by a doctor to treat a medical condition is allowable."

Christian Science Practicitioners: Yes, though "the treatment must be legal."