Mojo - January 2011

State of the Union: Live Video Coverage and Commentary

Tue Jan. 25, 2011 8:00 PM EST

President Barack Obama delivered his 2011 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress tonight on Capitol Hill. Mother Jones has full coverage, with reporters Suzy Khimm and Kate Sheppard in the room and others weighing in from around DC. Follow the action right here, and watch this space throughout the night for updates and reactions. Here's the CSPAN live feed:

 

Here's what MoJo's reporters are saying:

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GOP to Tea Party Targets: You're On Your Own

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 5:11 PM EST

When it comes to likely tea party targets in 2012, few may be more vulnerable than Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Despite his staunchly conservative record, Hatch's long history of working across the aisle has irked the right flank of his party; recent polls have shown him trailing behind possible primary contenders. Snowe, meanwhile, is one of the few remaining moderate Republicans left in Congress, and the majority of Maine Republicans have said they want to give her the boot. And the Republican Party has sent both lawmakers a clear message: You're on your own.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)—head of the National Republican Senate Committee—suggested that neither Hatch nor Snowe should count on much if any help from national Republicans during their hotly contested primaries. "My preference, all things being equal, would be to have our incumbents take care of their own needs in the primary stage," Cornyn told reporters as he boarded a subway car inside the Capitol complex. When asked whether Hatch might suffer the same fate as his former GOP colleague Bob Bennett—who was routed during his Utah primary last year—Cornyn simply replied that "the concerns are pretty obvious…and I think [Hatch] is getting prepared." He added that he didn't expect the NRSC to put any money into Hatch's primary bid.

By contrast, the NRSC occasionally waded into contested primaries in 2010, encouraging Carly Fiorina in her bid against tea party favorite Chuck DeVore in the California Senate race. (National Democrats poured resources into protecting incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet during his Colorado primary race.)

Cornyn's comments indicate that the NRSC will be reluctant to risk the mess of an intraparty fight—and the likely wrath of its tea party flank—by wading into primary challenges, even (or perhaps especially) to protect at-risk, long-standing incumbents.

When asked about Snowe's prospects, Cornyn was bullish, brushing aside concerns about her vulnerability. "I think she's going to be in pretty good shape… She's been enormously successful in the past, and I wouldn't expect any difference this time," he said. Cornyn added that Snowe was just endorsed by Maine's new tea party-backed governor, Paul LePage, and that it was too early to read much into unfavorable polling.

At that very moment, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) stepped into Cornyn's subway car. It appeared to be the first time the senators had met since Lieberman announced his decision to bow out in 2012, thus avoiding a bloody challenge from Democrats angered by his willingness to side with Republicans. "You're a free man, Joe!" Cornyn bellowed as Lieberman sat down. He gave the four-term Senator a big smile: "It must be great."

Gingrich Calls for Abolishing the EPA

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 4:38 PM EST

Newt Gingrich is in Iowa today, visiting the land where politicos go to sow the seeds of presidential ambitions. Speaking at the Renewable Fuels Summit, Gingrich moved from token GOP gripes about regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency to a full-on call for abolishing it entirely.

Via Politico, we learn that Gingrich's proposal is to replace it with the "Environmental Solutions Agency," which "would encourage innovation, incentivize success and emphasize sound science and new technology over bureaucracy, regulation, litigation and restrictions on American energy." The former Speaker of the House also noted that Obama should outline an "all of the above" energy plan in the State of the Union tonight to "truly demonstrate he is serious about governing from the center." In Republican-speak, "all of the above" leans heavily on more oil and gas drilling, which Gingrich has repeatedly touted via the "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" campaign promoted by his 527 group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

Remember, this is the guy who two years ago was sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi talking about how we can all join forces to fight climate change. Bemoaning regulations on greenhouse gas emissions is now par for the course for Republicans with political ambitions. But Gingrich's call to abolish the EPA takes it to a new level. The EPA—created by a Republican president, lest we forget—is also responsible for things like, oh, keeping arsenic out of our drinking water, lead out of paints, and carcinogens out of our air.

This surely won't be the last attack on the EPA as Republican candidates start gearing up for 2012. I'm guessing, though, that most Americans actually like clean water and air, so this could be a bit of an overreach.

Where'd Those Missing Guns Go?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 1:52 PM EST

Since the tragedy in Tucson, gun reform advocates have declared war against the sort of high-capacity clip legally obtained and used by alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner. Less discussed, though, has been the thriving underground gun trade that continues to provide criminals with easy access to the high-powered firearms.

Now, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has dug up some shocking statistics that show just how prevalent and accessible these off-the-books guns actually are. Drawing on research from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that licensed gun dealers "lost" an average of at least 56 firearms a day over the last three years. From 2008 to 2010, at least 62,134 firearms vanished from the inventories of of gun dealers. And those are just the guns the ATF knows went missing. According to Brady:

The 62,134 "missing" guns are likely a vast undercount of the total number of guns that disappeared from gun shops in the last three years. The missing guns are noted at ATF compliance inspections of licensed gun dealers, but ATF has conducted compliance inspections each year at only about one-fifth of the nation’s gun shops. Gun dealers inspected by ATF could not account for 22,770 guns in 2008, 18,323 guns in 2009, and 21,041 in 2010.

Because these unaccounted-for guns have no record of sale, they're highly sought after by criminals, who buy them on the black market from gun traffickers. And corrupt gun dealers often disguise off-the-book sales by claiming that firearms were lost or stolen.

“It’s the height of irresponsibility for gun dealers to allow tens of thousands of firearms to leave their shops without background checks or a record of sale. Congress is also to blame for its refusal to fully fund and staff the ATF and to strengthen our nation’s weak guns,” said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Every gun that leaves a gun shop without a background check is one that fuels the illegal gun market and endangers our communities.”

Actual law enforcement is what's missing here. But Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) has introduced legislation that could help address at least some of the illegal circulation of firearms. Often times, gun dealers who've had their licenses revoked are allowed to transfer their inventory into their "personal collections," then selling those guns without performing any sort of background checks on their customers, or keeping any records on their potential customers. That creates a considerable loophole, Ackerman says, that has led to thousands of guns being purchased by individuals who never had a background check, with some of those same weapons being used in deadly shootings.

Ackerman's bill aims to close this "fire-sale loophole." Its fate—along with that of Carolyn McCarthy's bill seeking to ban high-capacity magazines, like the 30-round clip used by alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner—remains up in the air.

A Bipartisan Health Care Compromise?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 12:21 PM EST

If there's one thing that both parties can agree on about health care reform, it's that the 1099 tax reporting provision for businesses has got to go. Democrats and Republicans both concur that requiring businesses to report any health-care expenses greater than $600 to the IRS is needlessly burdensome. Even President Obama has singled out the provision as an onerous regulation that is particularly tough on small businesses. And on Monday, there was the sign of some forward momentum on the issue: both Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) announced their plans to introduce separate 1099 repeal bills.

But despite the overwhelming bipartisan support to repeal 1099, actually devising a feasible legislative solution could still be tough sledding. During the lame-duck session just a few weeks ago, Baucus and Johanns introduced the same respective 1099 repeal provisions, and both failed to gain enough votes to pass, despite the near-unanimity that the measure has to go. The problem? Baucus' proposal wasn't paid for, so it would end up increasing the deficit by some $19 billion. Johanns repeal provision, on the other hand, paid for itself through budget cuts to federal agencies that some Democrats were loath to support.

Baucus previously agreed to work with Johanns to hammer out a compromise, but it's easy to see how legislative gridlock could delay 1099 repeal yet again. Given the GOP's strengthened numbers in the Senate and new House majority, Johanns will likely have more leverage to demand the budget cuts in exchange for 1099 repeal. But despite their call to shred reform, piece by piece, Republicans could also be wary about handing the Democrats a clear bipartisan victory on the issue and ratchet up their demands for budget-slashing even further.

Obama Picks Copyright Lawyer Don Verrilli for Top Legal Post

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 5:45 AM EST

President Barack Obama is poised to nominate Don Verrilli, a deputy White House counsel and former top copyright lawyer, to replace now-Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as Solicitor General, the government's top lawyer. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder first reported that Verrilli was the likely pick way back in May 2010, but on Monday, the New York Times' Charlie Savage confirmed the long-expected move is imminent. As Savage notes, Verrilli has a great reputation, significant bipartisan support (conservative legal legend Ted Olsen and former George W. Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada both like him), and sterling legal credentials. Even in today's closely divided Senate, Verrilli is very likely to be confirmed. But as I reported last year, Verrilli's history may draw some criticism from copyright reform activists, whom he repeatedly whooped in court for more than a decade:

Verrilli, who's now serving as an associate White House counsel, is best known for convincing the Supreme Court that file-sharing networks could be sued for copyright infringement—a win that earned him the ire of copyright reform supporters and a reputation as the "guy who killed Grokster," a file-sharing service. 

Verrilli represented a group of 28 entertainment companies that sued Grokster and another file-sharing company, Streamcast, in 2003. The plaintiffs argued that the companies should be penalized for the large amounts of copyrighted music and movies that were downloaded by their users. Critics of the Grokster decision argue the company itself wasn't [violating copyright law], although some of its users were. Grokster's defenders added that not all of the sharing was illegal. The Supreme Court sided with Verrilli's clients—the eventual settlement cost Grokster $50 million and effectively shuttered the site.

More recently, Verrilli has worked on a case with even higher stakes. Until he joined the Obama administration, Verrilli led a team of lawyers that had sued Google for $1 billion on behalf of Viacom, the entertainment company that owns CBS, MTV, and Comedy Central. The suit alleges "massive intentional copyright infringement" by YouTube, Google's internet video site.

Copyright reform activists and file sharers don't have much pull on Capitol Hill, and even Verrilli's opponents seem to like him, so it's unlikely that his past will derail his nomination. But the very fact that Verrilli's promotion already seems like a done deal is a powerful illustration of what matters in Washington, and what doesn't.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 25, 2011

Tue Jan. 25, 2011 5:30 AM EST

Afghan National Army soldiers assist 1st Lt. Michael Viti, platoon leader, Company A, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment out of a riverbed, Jan. 9, while conducting patrols near the village of Lowy Manarah in the Arghanda district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Nathan Thome

In the Social Security Debate, Today's Democrats Are Worse Than Yesterday's Republicans

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 12:29 PM EST

Having “retooled’’ his Presidency for a more open accommodation of the center right, Obama will soon be overseeing the battle to launch a dismantling of the Social Security system.

His government has, from the start, been reminiscent of the Clinton years, so it’s safe to say that we can expect more triangulation. Clinton’s adoption of Republican tropes led him to fulfill some of the conservatives’ fondest dreams: His administration countenanced the demise of the banking regulations originally established by the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act, and the destruction of the welfare system established in the 1930s and expanded in the 1960s. Obama will provide much the same function on Social Security. Without entirely destroying the popular program, he will support cuts that go beyond anything that should rightly happen during a Democratic administration.

Of course, the Democrats will say that it isn’t their fault: It all happened because of that horrid Tea Party, dragging conservative Republicans even further to the right. This suggests that Democrats had no choice but to head them off at the rightward pass, as if standing and fighting simply wasn’t an option—and as if they didn’t still hold the Senate and the White House.  

What makes this especially disconcerting, for anyone who has lived long enough to remember earlier political eras, is how favorably the Republicans of the past compare to the Democrats of the present on many points.

Pawlenty Ready to Back Gov't Shutdown Over Debt Ceiling

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 12:27 PM EST

Tim Pawlenty—who has all but announced his 2012 bid for the GOP presidential nomination—has come out against raising the federal debt ceiling, and he's even willing to shut down the federal government over the issue.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, the former Minnesota governor argues that Congress should refuse to act when US borrowing approaches the statutory cap later this year. Conservative Republicans have already threatened a standoff with the Obama administration over the debt ceiling, vowing to force America to default on its debts if Democrats don't deliver the spending cuts the GOP wants. But even if the federal government were to shut down in the wake of a debt limit fight, the conflict could help the country in the long run, Pawlenty claims. A 2002 shutdown in Minnesota when Pawlenty was governor "changed the state's spending pattern dramatically," he writes.

Pawlenty also defended the utility of a federal government shutdown during a January 12 radio spot with the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer. Though Pawlenty was criticized for defending Don't Ask Don't Tell in the interview with Fischer, he also emphasized that he was a fiscal right-winger as much as a social conservative:

FISCHER: You had a government shutdown over a budget battle back in 2002. What lessons would you want to pass on to fiscal conservatives today if that were to happen today in DC?

PAWLENTY: Well, two things. One is that you can't be reckless about it. But we had a partial government shutdown in Minnesota and the world didn't come to an end. And so you don’t want to have that be your goal. But sometimes, Bryan, when it's appropriate and you're standing on the right principles, there needs to be strong conviction and sometimes a showdown.

Though Pawlenty has stopped short of calling for a full-scale revolt, his hard line could encourage Congressional Republicans intent on drawing Democrats into a game of chicken as the debt ceiling fight draws nearer.

Will the IRS Extinguish Medical Marijuana?

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 7:20 AM EST

In February, 2009, the US Department of Justice announced that it would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries that abided by state laws, sparking a boom in quasi-legal cannabis investments that I detail today in "Joint Ventures" (my feature from the January/February print magazine that's now online). Even so, the fast-growing grey-market in ganja could be about to get pruned. The Internal Revenue Service is reportedly auditing some of California's largest and most reputable medical pot dispensaries, examining their compliance with an obscure section of tax law aimed at drug dealers. Dispensary owners say that the provision, if strictly applied, could effectively snuff out the nation's burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

Enacted in 1982, the year that President Ronald Reagan declared a "War on Drugs," section 280E of the federal tax code explicitly bans any tax deductions related to "trafficking in controlled substances." Though 280E predated the legalization of medical marijuana in California and other states, it has remained "like a dagger held at the throat of every medical cannabis organization," says Steve D'Angelo, the founder of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, which recently underwent an audit by the IRS that targeted its compliance with the provision. "If 280E is applied literally and strictly, it has the potential to close down Harborside and every other medical cannabis dispensary."

According to Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of medical marijuana users and growers, the IRS has recently launched audits of several other large dispensaries in California based on 280E. (The IRS did not return a phone call last week). "I think it's a new front [in the War on Drugs]," says Caren Woodson, the ASA's director of government affairs. "We're nervous that this is going to have a big effect."