Mojo - January 2011

GOP's Latest Consumer Bureau Attack

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 12:30 PM EST

You knew this was coming. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), the new oversight chief on the House financial services committee, sent a letter on Tuesday to Elizabeth Warren, who runs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, grilling her on the bureau's plans while slamming the bureau altogether. According to Politico, Neugebauer writes that Warren is "tasked with executing a fatally flawed plan" by getting the consumer bureau up and running.

Neugebauer's questioning ranges from the nuts and bolts of running the bureau to requests for detailed information on Warren's meetings with top financial regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve, among others. But other questions clearly show Neugebauer's opposition to the agency and belief that it's just more unneeded regulation. For instance, he asks: "What policies are in place to avoid potential duplicative, conflicting or overlapping rule-making that are currently underway, but will ultimately be under the regulatory authority of the CFPB?" He also demands Warren explain how the bureau's new rule-making would "avoid the kind of overregulation that might stifle innovation."

Not that Neugebauer's dislike of the bureau is surprising. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the financial services committee chair, has expressed his distaste for Warren's outfit. So has Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), a top member on the committee, who's tried to hack away at the bureau's rule-making power by giving bank regulators—the ones who failed to prevent the meltdown of 2008—veto power over the bureau. Already Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the banking committee and consumer bureau opponent, has demanded that Warren make her schedule public.

Neugebauer's letter is only the beginning. The GOP-led financial services committee will no doubt make the declawing of the consumer bureau a priority in the 112th Congress, and it'll be up to Democrats to stand their ground and defend the much-needed bureau for which they fought so hard.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Who Does the NRA Advocate For?

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 11:23 AM EST

If you stand up for the second amendment, the NRA will stand up for you—that's what the gun rights juggernaut claims, at least. But, increasingly, the lobby's incestuous relationship with the gun manufacturers begs the question: Is the the NRA advocating for people who own guns? Or the lucrative companies that make them? 

Highlighting this dynamic, the Center for Public Integrity's Peter Stone writes about MidwayUSA, a gun manufacturer that sells high-capacity magazines similar to the one used in the Arizona shooting spree, and its close ties to the NRA's lobbying wing. In 1992, Midway developed a lucrative fundraising tactic to curry favor with NRA, known as "round up": Midway asks customers to round up the total of each order they place to the nearest dollar or higher, then donates the difference to the NRA's lobbying shop, known as the Institute for Legislative Action. But the relationship between Midway and the NRA doesn't end there. Brenda Potterfield, the wife of Midway's CEO, is the vice president of the NRA Foundation's board of trustees.

A number of other gun manufacturers have adopted the technique, reports Stone. Together with Midway, they've funneled $7.5 million to the NRA, $5.7 million of that coming just from MidwayUSA. As Stone reports:

Further, some of these vendors of high-capacity magazines also boast executives who are board members of the NRA. Ronnie Barrett, the CEO of Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, which makes a military-style rifle sold with high-capacity magazines, was elected to the NRA board in 2009. And Pete Brownell, who runs Iowa-based Brownells Inc., which also makes high-capacity magazines, joined the NRA board in 2010. The strong financial and corporate ties to the NRA underscore how the gun rights goliath has become increasingly intertwined with some of the nation’s leading accessory vendors that sell high-capacity magazines. All have big stakes in fighting a pending gun control measure in Washington.

With sellers like Midway and Barrett under fire by lawmakers like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who is floating a bill that seeks to ban the transfer, importation, and possession of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, the NRA's lobbying wing has rushed to their defense. "While those of us who defend the Second Amendment were respecting the heartache of the people of Tucson and waiting to learn the full facts of the case, anti-gun activists were renewing their push for more gun control laws," the NRA-ILA wrote in a recent statement specifically calling out McCarthy's bill.

The White House has yet to throw its support behind McCarthy's bill, and Hill watchers don't seem to like its chances. If it fails, that's another win for the NRA and the industry players they represent.

Health Reform by the Numbers

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 7:00 AM EST

As Republicans seek to repeal health care reform, they have assaulted "Obamacare" as a job-killing, freedom-crushing behemoth that's pushed the country onto the path to socialism. In order to defend their landmark legislative achievement, Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to highlight the bill's most popular provisions, ones that have already gone into effect. "We can either talk about abstraction, or we can talk about real people," said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), at a hearing on Tuesday, where Democrats invited ordinary citizens to testify about how health reform has helped them personally. "None of us did a good enough job" explaining the legislation the first time around, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) admitted to reporters. And so the party has scrambled to play catch-up as the GOP has launched their all-out war against reform.

Though most of the major changes under the Affordable Care Act won't take effect until 2014, Democrats deliberately frontloaded the law with key reforms early on, in hopes of building political support for the measure. They've now trotted out those benefits as the Republicans have made health care repeal the first priority of their new House majority—even creating a map that details the benefits of reform by each congressional district. Here's a by-the-numbers rundown* of how the Democrats' health care legislation has affected Americans so far—and what the GOP is threatening to take away with Wednesday's scheduled vote on a repeal bill:

Four million Medicare beneficiaries are expected to receive a $250 rebate check for their 2010 prescription drug costs since the "donut hole" that exempted some seniors from drug discounts was closed on January 1, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

More than four million small businesses are eligible to receive a tax credit for purchasing employee health insurance in 2010, according to a July 2010 study by Families USA and Small Business Majority (both are pro-reform advocacy groups). About 1.2 million small businesses are eligible to receive the maximum 35 percent tax credit.

About 2 million uninsured children with preexisting conditions cannot be denied coverage under the current law. By 2014, everyone with a preexisting condition (as many as 129 million Americans) would receive the same insurance protections.

Nearly 2.4 million young adults can now receive coverage through their parents' health plans, under a provision that extends coverage to dependents up to age 26, according to the Obama administration. That number includes 1.8 million young adults who weren't insured previously, as well as some 600,000 who had to buy insurance on their own.

This year, about 10,700 people will keep their insurance coverage due to a provision in the bill that prohibits an industry practice known as "rescission," which entailed stripping people of their coverage when payouts grew too costly.

Pre-reform, about 18,600 to 20,400 people hit a lifetime limit in insurance coverage each year and were denied coverage for claims above this ceiling. The reform bill prohibits insurers from setting these coverage caps.

Finally, repealing the legislation would also increase the deficit by an estimated $230 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

To be sure, not all who are eligible for these benefits will end up receiving them—either because they choose not to or because they aren't aware that they can claim them. To that end, one of the Democrats' biggest challenges in both protecting the law and improving its political appeal will be to educate the potential beneficiaries about the specific aspects of reform that help them. And the Republicans can still do significant damage to health reform by impeding this effort and obfuscating the real numbers behind the law.

*Clarification: There are 12.4 million ways in which Americans have already benefitted from reform (the aggregate of the numbers cited above). But there are less than 12.4 million people in total, as some qualify for more than one kind of benefit—e.g. young people under 26 who can qualify for their parents' insurance who also have pre-existing conditions.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 19, 2011

Wed Jan. 19, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew chief watches the terrain during an air assault mission to the District Center of Daymirdad, Wardak province, Afghanistan, Jan. 9, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sean P. Casey/Released)

Corn on "Hardball": Sarah Palin Defends "Blood Libel"

Tue Jan. 18, 2011 8:14 PM EST

David Corn and Shushannah Walshe joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to dissect the latest drama from Sarah Palin.  This time it's an interview with Sean Hannity in which she defends her use of the term "blood libel" to describe what the liberal media did to her following the Tucson shootings. Sigh.

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

Florida's Governor Can't Count, Even When Shafting State Employees

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 7:22 PM EST

For several weeks now, since billionaire Rick Scott was inaugurated as governor of Florida, I've been wanting to spotlight some of the Sunshine State's political insanity. We here at MoJo are busy putting together the next print issue, however, so you'll have to wait just a bit longer for in-depth reporting on sketchy political appointments, criminal investigations of Republicans, misadventures in deregulation, and gruesome soft-money trails. In the meantime, though, one tipster told MoJo today of a new low in Scott's tenure: his inability to appear marginally competent, even when bringing the hurt to state employees.

According to the source, Scott held a video conference with selected state employees today, including career law-enforcement officers. Its purpose: Scott wanted to personally inform state workers that they'd have to cut back to 13 paid holidays per year. This news was apparently met with total silence from the state employees. The reason? They currently only take nine paid holidays, a fact that's easily discernible from the state's own website. After the conference, state employees reportedly emailed and called each other furiously, laughing over the miscalculation: "Did he really say that? Does he really not know?"

Mind you, Mother Jones' source for this information—who deigned to work yesterday, a federal and Florida state holiday—is no big-government-loving pinko. "Rick Scott is such a fumbling idiot," the source said. "He thinks he's running the federal government!"

We don't know about that, but we do know this isn't the first time Scott's had no idea what he was talking about as the state's chief executive. (Direct quote from a press conference: "It has to go through the Legislature, is my understanding...That's not my understanding. I'm not sure. I have to check into that, but that's not my understanding. It's not my understanding right now.") And he also has plans to slash more benefits for state employees, including a retirement pension system that was already pared down by then-governor Jeb Bush.

Perhaps that's why he's limited media access to government officials in an unprecedented manner, in a state that has one of the nation's most expansive sunshine laws. Be that as it may, rest assured, dear reader, MJ will bring much, much more on the sordid state of affairs in this politically vital appendage of the union.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Gulet Mohamed Headed Home?

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 6:15 PM EST

That was quick.

On Tuesday morning, the lawyer for Gulet Mohamed, an American teen who has been detained in Kuwait for a month, filed suit against the US government, claiming that by placing Mohamed on the no-fly list based only on suspicion, the government is denying him the most basic right of citizenship—the right to live in America. Just over an hour after the papers were filed, a federal district judge in Alexandria, Virginia ordered an emergency hearing. By mid-afternoon, Justice Department lawyers were in court, telling the judge that Mohamed would be on his way back to the States in short order. 

The judge has asked for an update on the case on Thursday and appears ready to order the government to bring Mohamed back to the US if he is not home by then, the 19-year-old's lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, tells Mother Jones. Abbas thinks the government will do what it told the judge it's working on and bring Mohamed back.

The extremely unusual fast-tracking of the Mohamed case is a sign of how clear-cut the legal and Constitutional issues involved really are. The judge told lawyers for both sides that the government appears to have committed an obvious breach of Mohamed's rights. "There's no such thing as a justification that's sufficient to exclude a US citizen from the US," Abbas says. "That's essentially what the judge said."

Despite Mohamed's apparent victory, there is some bad news for civil libertarians in the government's move. Abbas believes the government's cave-in is a deliberate tactic to maintain its ability to continue to treat others Muslim Americans the same way it has treated Mohamed. Like a number of other Muslim Americans, Mohamed claims he was subjected to what civil liberties groups refer to as "proxy detention."

Mohamed says he was arrested by a US-friendly Arab nation (in this case Kuwait), beaten and abused by unknown tormentors, and then aggressively interrogated by FBI agents. He asserts that he was repeatedly asked about his travels to countries including Yemen and Somalia, two hotbeds of anti-American activity. He also says he was told he could not return home unless he cooperated with their questioning. All of these claims track with the stories other Muslim Americans have told about their "proxy detention" experiences. "The reason I fully expect the government to have Gulet on a plane back by Thursday is that they want to continue this objecitonable, immoral, and patently unconstitutional practice [of 'proxy detention']," Abbas says.

There's a chance, of course, that the government is bluffing. Mohamed has seemed close to coming home before. On Sunday night, Kuwaiti deportation officials took Mohamed to the airport and tried to put him on a United Airlines flight, but he was not allowed to board. Will this be another similar disappointment for Mohamed's family? We'll know on Thursday. 

Just a Nut Case: The Post-Tucson Bait and Switch

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 5:38 PM EST

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the right when accused Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner was revealed to be just another disturbed young man, clearly suffering from untreated mental illness. After all, conservative commentators leaped to point out, if the guy is a nut job, then all the right-wing political attacks on Democratic party office holders and candidates for office didn’t have any or much effect on the shooting.

That interpretation of events seems to have taken hold in the public mind. Most people don’t think there is any connection between the Tucson shooting and what the pollsters call "political discourse," according to the new ABC-Washington Post poll released Tuesday morning.

The public overwhelmingly sees the country's political discourse as negative in tone – 82 percent say so, including three in 10 who say it’s “angry.” Still there’s a division, 49-49 percent, on whether it’s created a climate that could encourage political violence.

On the Tucson shootings specifically, 54 percent of Americans do not think the political discourse contributed to the incident, while 40 percent think it did. Those who do see a connection divide on whether it was a strong factor, or not strong.

Awlaki Sentenced in Yemeni Court, In Absentia

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 2:33 PM EST

The US wants Anwar al-Awlaki dead; Yemen just wants him in jail for a while. In 2010, the Obama administration reportedly authorized the targeted killing of al-Awlaki, whom US officials believe to be linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009. A Yemeni court has taken a different approach: after trying the American-born Al Qaeda propagandist in absentia for the killing of a French engineer, it has sentenced him to ten years in prison, Al Jazeera reports.

Al-Awlaki's sentence followed the Monday sentencing of Hisham Mohammed Assem for the murder of Jacques Spagnolo, a contractor with the Austrian-owned oil and gas firm OMV. Assem killed Spagnolo, who was working as a security guard, during a shooting attack on an OMV compound. Witnesses testified that if Assem not been apprehended his next target would have been the plant manager—an American. 

Assem has said that he killed Spagnolo out of personal animus. And OMV "saw no political background for the action taken by the Yemeni security guard," while the defence ministry said Assem had probably acted for personal reasons. But Awlaki and his cousin, Othman, were charged with inciting Assem to commit the murder. Awlaki's lawyer denies any link between Assem and his clients:

Mohammed al-Saqqaf, a lawyer for both Anwar and Othman, told the court in November that the al-Awlakis had no "connection or contact" with Assem, and that he also did not know where al-Awlaki was.... While both the charges and sentencing for Assem and the two al-Awlakis made no mention of al-Qaeda, they did link the three men to unspecified "terrorist organisations."

It's unclear what evidence the court had explicitly linking Assem to terrorism; his connection to the al-Awlakis seems murky enough. It's certainly worth asking whether the US pressured the Yemeni court to include the al-Awlakis as part of Assem's sentencing.

GOP Licks Its Lips As Kent Conrad Announces Retirement

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 1:30 PM EST

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) won't run for reelection in 2012, he told supporters on Tuesday. This is big news: Conrad is the first Democrat to announce his retirement in the wake of the epic drubbing the party suffered in November. "We believe this race represents one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year," Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the New York Times. Republican Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk has already formed an exploratory committee, but given Walsh's confidence, the GOP field could deepen quickly now that Conrad is out.

This isn't the first time Conrad, who was first elected in 1986, has bowed out. In 1992, he promised not to seek re-election if the federal budget deficit hadn't fallen by the end of his term. After it became clear that wouldn't happen, he upheld his promise, paving the way for now retired-Byron Dorgan to win the seat. But just months before the election, North Dakota's other senator, Quentin Burdick, passed away. Conrad ran for and won Burdick's seat in the special election held later that year.

In a letter to supporters, Conrad said his decision to not run again would free him up to find solutions to the nation's fiscal problems during the rest of his term. Conrad, who heads up the Budget committee, wrote that "[t]here are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America’s dependence on foreign oil...It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for re-election."

From the Times

The loss of a veteran like Mr. Conrad who could run a competitive race in a conservative state next year shows the challenges facing Senate Democrats as they try to hold on to the Senate when they have twice as many seats up for re-election as Republicans.

But Democrats said they did not expect to essentially abandon the race as they did last year when Byron Dorgan announced he would not run for another term. They pointed to several potential candidates, including Earl Pomeroy, the former Democratic House member who lost in 2010.

"There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive, while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side," Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said. "North Dakotans have a long history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition."