Mojo - December 2010

More on Eric Cantor and "Read the Bill"

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 6:49 AM EST

On Monday, I wrote about future House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's pledge to adhere to the "three day rule," which requires legislation be posted online three days before the House votes on it. Here's why I think just reading the bill isn't enough:

Better 'read the bill' reform would start, I think, with extending to all of Congress the Senate Finance Committee's tradition of debating and voting on bills written in 'conceptual language'—otherwise known as plain English. If that was the standard for what was being voted on and discussed and posted on the web in advance, ordinary people and members of Congress (and journalists, for that matter) would be much more likely to actually understand what was going on.

There's more to this story, though. Conceptual language is great for understanding a bill initially. But eventually lawyers have to translate it into bill text. If something gets lost in translation, lawmakers sometimes have to spend years trying to get it corrected. A friend suggested a way around this: make committee reports more available and accessible.

Committee reports are actually pretty readable (here's one on a FEMA oversight bill), and offer not just an explanation for what the bill does but also why people believe it's necessary.

Report language even has some of the effect of law because courts use it when they're looking for evidence of congressional intent. But right now, you need to sift through link after link on THOMAS to get from the text of a bill to a report explaining what it does. Also, too many people don't even know that these committee reports exist.

This is fixable. If using conceptual language is impractical, Congress could just require these comprehensive, readable reports—reports that are already written for bills as they are passed out of Committee—be made easily accessible online. It would certainly be a step in the right direction. Does the bill you're trying to understand today have a committee report associated with it? You can search committee reports here.

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

Thu Dec. 16, 2010 5:30 AM EST

Paratroopers with 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, remove an M119A2 105mm howitzer from its air-drop packing Dec. 3, 2010, during a training exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Paratroopers’ goal is to be able to fire the cannon within 20 minutes of the first jumper exiting the aircraft. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

GOPer: Military "Inconsistent With American Values" (VIDEO)

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 7:58 PM EST

The House voted today to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but not before Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) gave us the holiday gift of these three minutes—think of this as a sort of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Explains Why He Loves an Illiberal Military That Hates Homos."

Somewhere in there, after calling out the gays of Congress and casting aspersions on the ambitions of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gohmert beseeches his colleagues to uphold DADT because:

The military isn't consistent with American values! It does not have freedom of speech! It does not have freedom of assembly! It does not have the freedom to express its love to those in the military the way you can out here! Because it's an impediment to the military mission! You can't do that! Can you imagine military members being able to tell their commander what they think of him, using freedom of speech, or assembling where they wish? It doesn't work!

Wow, I didn't realize the military sucked that bad. And I'm a vet! Thanks, Rep. Gohmert, for selling a new generation of young Americans on the joy of national service.

Of course, to anyone who's familiar with Terror Babies-gate, Anderson Cooper-gate, and Moo Goo Dog Pan-gate (as well as his fear that direct participatory democracy is un-American), this is just Louie being Louie. Game on, Gohmert Pyle!

(h/t Spencer Ackerman, "The Vilest Thing You Will See Today")

The GOP's Epic Financial Crisis Commission Fail

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 5:52 PM EST

On Wednesday morning, I told you about Shahien Nasiripour's warning that Republicans on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission—the group charged with investigating the cause of the financial crisis—were about to issue a report embracing the bogus claim that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and loans to blacks and Hispanics were responsible for the collapse. Well, the report is out, and it's worse than we thought.

Remember, the Republicans on this commission are supposed to be the responsible, informed, and above all serious types who deserve to handle complex tasks like investigating and explaining the causes of the crisis. We're talking about people like Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who ran the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, and Keith Hennessey, who headed the National Economic Council. They're supposed to be wonks—Republican-leaning wonks, but wonks nonetheless. They're not supposed to be hardcore partisan hacks. That's why it's so disappointing to see them issue such an incomplete, misleading, half-assed, throwaway "report." 

As Nasiripour's reporting anticipated, the words that most people associate with the financial crisis—"Wall Street", "interconnected", "shadow banking", "deregulation", credit default swap—are absent from the Republicans' report. The word "derivative" is nowhere to be found. (TPM's Megan Carpentier has a great list of over a dozen other items in the commission's mandate that the GOPers simply ignored.) Meanwhile, the conclusion of the nine-page, three-footnote report focuses on an issue almost entirely divorced from the causes of the financial crisis: the federal budget deficit. "We caution our nation's leaders to learn the appropriate lessons from history and take seriously the need to reduce our federal deficit," the GOPers conclude. A large portion of the document, meanwhile, focuses on just what Nasiripour predicted it would: falsely blaming Fannie, Freddie, and lending to minorities for causing the crisis. 

Is this seriously the best they have to offer? Any semi-competent RedState poster could have summarized the book This Time It's Different and rehashed old attacks on the Community Reinvestment Act and Fannie and Freddie. Why are these guys wasting their time—and ours—doing it? If you're going to break away from the rest of the FCIC and draft your own report, the least people should expect is that you do a halfway competent job.

As Mike Konczal says, this effort would have earned an undergraduate a D+. And while the GOP report is undoubtedly a failure as an explanation for the crisis, it's not even a success as a political document. Most liberals could have written a report that would be both more accurate and more critical of Democrats. As I wrote earlier, it's not as if either party did a particularly stellar job of regulating the economy and the financial sector over the past few decades. I'm sure that people like Konczal and Dean Baker will have more on this later (UPDATE: Here's Konczal), but for now, I'll give you what the Republican commissioners have to say about their own report:

This document adds to that conversation rather than closing it. The two seminal works on the causes of the Great Depression, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960 and Ben Bernanke's "Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression," were published in 1963 and 1983, respectively, many decades after the crisis had ended. We anticipate that future generations will continue to provide additional insights into the causes of this financial crisis as well.

We had better hope someone provides some additional insights. Because what this report is offering is just not going to cut it. 

A Tea Party X-mas

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 4:32 PM EST

While the media and liberal politicians have often portayed the tea party movement as a monolithic angry white mob, over the past year and a half, I've found that tea party activists are far from a homogeneous group, even if they are mostly white. I've met some real characters: A Tennessee lawyer who campaigned for Congress carrying a pitchfork who doubles as a volunteer fire fighter; a Virginia safety engineer and Navy vet who owns a lot of guns and drives a German car jury-rigged to run on vegetable oil (better known as a "grease car"); and then of course, there's Robin Stublen, a Florida activist who kills bugs and cuts grass for a living.

Usually Chrismas is a huge time of year for Stublen, because when he isn't campaigning for Gov-elect Rick Scott, blasting his local zoning board for some sort of incompetence, or complaining about feckless Republicans, he's generally working to cover his house with 350,000 Christmas lights. His house becomes such a major spectacle in the town of Punta Gorda that it has its own website giving directions and hours for the light show and indicating when Santa is likely to appear. The lights draw so much traffic that Stublen has been able to raise nearly $12,000 in donations in the past five years from passersby that he's donated to local Kiwanis clubs. It's an unusual hobby, and one you might not expect from your sterotypical tea partier, but Stublen is obsessed with what he calls "extreme lighting."

This year, however, he was supposed to have knee surgery, so he skipped the annual light production. But for those of us who won't be able to see the tea partier in his Santa suit, Stublen has put some of his display on video and posted it on YouTube.  For an entirely different perspective on the tea party movement, you can check it out here:

 

John Cornyn's Earmark Hypocrisy

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 4:15 PM EST

On Wednesday afternoon, as House and Senate Democrats were trying to handle the end-of-session passage of an $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) sent out a blistering email fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he heads. In the note, Cornyn decried the 6,600 earmarks totaling $8 billion contained in the bill:

Will you help send a message to Senate Democrats? Go here and tell them that you will not stand for business as usual in Washington. They should not pass this bill and to stop spending money our country doesn't have.

Cornyn failed to mention that last year he numbered among Congress' top earmarkers—supporting dozens of earmark requests that added up to $228 million.

As for the current bill, Cornyn has had a tough time explaining his own contradictory actions. On Fox News, host Bill Hemmer hammered Cornyn for requesting $16 million worth of earmarks in the very bill he was denouncing Democrats for. "Can you defend that?" Hemmer presseed. Cornyn said that he supported the Senate GOP's two-year moratorium on earmarks and would vote against this spending bill. But with the Democrats in the majority, the bill could well pass without Cornyn's vote. Under that circumstance, he would be able to both claim credit for the earmarks and for voting against the Democratic bill.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, Cornyn ran into similar trouble. After both he and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) slammed the bill, reporters grilled them on why the measure contained earmarks they'd requested. "I support those projects, but I don't support this bill," Thune said. When one reporter said to Cornyn, "It appears like you're saying one thing and doing another," the senator replied, "Not at all." As a GOP staffer tried to end the press conference, another reporter asked Cornyn if he would acknowledge "that it was wrong to put the earmarks in in the first place." Cornyn responded, "You've asked the question about five times and I've tried to answer it to the best of my ability." Then Cornyn left the room.

So one of the primo earmarkers on the Hill won't say whether he should have shoved earmarks into the current (or previous) spending bill. But he shows no hesitation in blasting Democrats for passing a measure containing his earmarks. In that NRSC email, he exclaims, "Democrats have a lot of explaining to do to taxpayers." So, too, does Cornyn.

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Is Journalism Crumbling?

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 1:39 PM EST

It's hard to summarize Pulitzer Prize-winner and Mother Jones contributor David Cay Johnston's report on the state of journalism, so you should just go read it. But it's clear the situation is grim: stenography journalism is cheap and easy, while real investigative work is expensive and hard. With the industry in turmoil in the wake of massive economic and technological disruptions, less actual investigative work—less actual reporting—gets done each year. Johnston does a great job of diagnosing and explaining the problem (I'd also recommend Dean Starkman's Columbia Journalism Review piece on the "hamster wheel"). But the most depressing part of the piece is that no one knows how to fix the problems that Johnston identifies. There's no end in sight.

The A&P Bankruptcy: It's Always the Union's Fault

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 12:55 PM EST

On Tuesday, RedState's Erick Erickson used his morning email blast to highlight a post by LaborUnionReport (an anti-union website) blaming the bankruptcy of the "151-year old Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., once the nation’s largest grocery chain," (a.k.a. A&P) on the Union of Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW). A&P's bankruptcy couldn't possibly have to do with the massive changes in the grocery industry since 1975, the last year that the company dominated the market. Fragmentation of the industry, the gradual extinction of smaller stores, the explosion of regional supermarket chains, and the eventual arrival of Target and Walmart in the grocery business couldn't have possibly been the reasons behind A&P's decline. Nor could a series of dubious acquisitions, an ultra-competitive market, and the most difficult economic environment in decades have killed the company. No: it had to be the union. I asked Jim Papian, a spokesman for the UFCW, for their side of the story:

The charge that the union is responsible for [the A&P bankruptcy] is patently absurd. UFCW members work for regional chains Shop Rite, Stop + Shop, FoodTown, (to name only a few) plus national, Fortune 500 companies Kroger, Safeway, and Supervalu. These grocers are successful. Some are industry leaders. UFCW members work in almost every kind of market across the country and are instrumental in the success these companies enjoy.

If hiring unionized workers is so devastating to a grocer's bottom line, why do so many other companies manage to do it and stay in business? Anyway, I'm sure if Mother Jones goes under, it will be because we're UAW members, not because we're in print journalism. Like all union members, our main goal is to undermine the financial health of our employer so we all lose our jobs.

What Caused the Financial Crisis?

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 12:55 PM EST

HuffPo's Shahien Nasiripour has a great story today on the turmoil that's engulfing the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), the bipartisan panel charged with investigating the causes of the financial crisis. Nasiripour reports that the GOP members of the commission are planning to issue their own report blaming the government for causing the collapse. But that's not the scariest part. This is:

During a private commission meeting last week, all four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases "Wall Street" and "shadow banking" and the words "interconnection" and "deregulation" from the panel's final report, according to a person familiar with the matter and confirmed by Brooksley E. Born, one of the six commissioners who voted against the proposal.

As I noted on Twitter, this little item is so absurd that it seems like it can't be true.

It seems pretty clear that the government did play a role in exacerbating the crisis. Liberals and conservatives alike can find many things to criticize in the government's response to the collapse of Bear Sterns and Lehman and the backdoor Goldman Sachs bailout that was the AIG rescue. But according to Nasiripour, the GOP members of the commission aren't focused on the bank bailouts. Instead, they're embracing the idea that the crisis was caused by the sinister combination of (1) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-backed mortgage lenders and (2) a 1970s-era law encouraging lending to blacks and Hispanics. In this story, Wall Street, shadow banking, and deregulation had nothing to do with the meltdown. Republicans have been pushing this fairy tale for years.

According to the version of the story the GOP side of the FCIC seems poised to embrace, Fannie and Freddie's moves to buy up huge numbers of subprime mortgages caused the market for subprime and derivative products to explode. As my colleague Andy Kroll has explained, the myth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac causing the financial crisis is just that: a myth. Sure, Fannie and Freddie stupidly bought a lot of subprime loans towards the end of the mortgage boom. But they weren't leading the charge—they were trying to keep up with their Wall Street competitors. Edmund Andrews explains the problem simply: Fannie and Freddie "weren’t pushing their private sector rivals to roll the dice. They were late to the craps table and desperately trying to make up for lost time."

The Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed in the 1970s to encourage lending to minorities, is the second piece of the puzzle for the Republicans on the panel. If you've been paying attention since the crash, you've heard this story before: the poor Wall Street banks couldn't help but make risky loans to underqualified borrowers because the government was making them do it! Of course, in 2006, just SIX PERCENT of sub-prime-type loans were issued by institutions subject to the CRA. But nevermind that. The GOP insists that letting minorities borrow money caused the economy to collapse, and they're not going to let pesky things like facts get in the way. 

Look: there's room in the FCIC inquiry to criticize government and its response to the crisis. There's room to criticize how banks were regulated and how they were bailed out. There's room to criticize decisions taken during both Democratic and Republican administrations. After all, neither party displayed much backbone over the past few decades when it comes to financial regulation and economic management. The FCIC report could help people really understand what happened: how both parties played a role in the disaster; how government, private business, rich bankers, and ordinary people were all at least partially at fault; and, most importantly, how we can try to prevent similar debacles from plunging the country into economic peril. In that context, seeing supposedly super-serious, top-level Republicans like Douglas Holtz-Eakin (a former CBO head!) and Keith Hennessey (who ran the National Economic Council!) embracing the worst kind of fact-free nonsense about the financial crisis is a profound disappointment. 

CPAC Organizer Discloses Embezzlement

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 11:55 AM EST

Someone this week leaked a juicy story to WorldNetDaily indicating that $400,000 in donor funds had been embezzled from the American Conservative Union, an old-line conservative advocacy group that organizes the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The premiere Republican political convention, CPAC is the testing ground for GOP presidential contenders that has been addressed by everyone from Ronald Reagan to Dick Cheney. ACU apparently disclosed the theft in its recent tax filings, noting that it had referred the case to the authorities. WND points out that the nonprofit group's bookkeeper was the ex-wife of ACU chairman David Keene, and that she had been fired earlier this year.

The story is an especially nasty hit on ACU by an organization that would normally be considered a friend. But not only did the conservative website best known for its regular "birther" updates break the news of the ACU scandal, but WND also took the opportunity to pile on Keene. WND dragged up a host of other scandals from the ACU's past, including the fact that Keene's son is serving a 10-year prison sentence for a road rage incident in Virginia in which he fired a gun at another motorist, narrowly missing his head. At the time, David Michael Keene was apparently working for his father at ACU. According to WND, the incident proved even more embarrassing for the elder Keene, who is a high ranking member of the National Rifle Association and currently poised to become its next president. 

It's unusual for conservatives to air their dirty laundry like this, and it came during a serious internecine ideological battle in the conservative movement that's largely about gays. Over the past few weeks, CPAC organizers have been fighting over whether or not the gay conservative group GOProud should be allowed to participate in the conference. Last year, CPAC allowed GOProud a table in the exhibit hall, and social conservative groups went bezerk, threatening to boycott. During the conference, a speaker from the California Young Americans for Freedom gave a homophobic rant attacking CPAC for allowing GOProud a spot at the conference. This year, GOProud is looking to be more involved, and again the evangelicals are in a tizzy, threatening to boycott the conference and generally throwing bombs at ACU, which has been putting on the show since the early 1970s.

WND has been right in the middle of that fight. Joseph Farah, WND's founder, has been raising warning flags about homosexuals infiltrating the conservative movement for a while now, penning outraged editorials about GOProud's "real agenda." He organized a counterweight conference to CPAC this fall because of "the conservative movement's capitulation to the radical homosexual agenda," from which he disinvited Ann Coulter after she agreed to speak at GOProud's convention, dubbed "Homocon," in September. Farah has chastised Keene for promoting Homocon as well. 

WND's attack on ACU suggests that gay rights are the emerging fault line in the conservative movement, as more libertarian and tea party types accept gays into their ranks and abandon longstanding opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell and other elements of that particular culture war. It wouldn't be surprising if WND's scoop about the embezzlement came gift-wrapped from an anti-gay movement insider.