The Pork Man Cometh

The Republicans have declared war on earmarks and government spending as a signature issue for their newly empowered ranks in Congress. But it's becoming increasingly clear that not everyone is on board. On Thursday, the Senate GOP announced that six freshmen Republicans would be appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee—including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the former House member whose love for earmarks has led critics to dub him "the Pork-Meister."

Despite criticism from his own Republican colleagues, Blunt has unapologetically embraced earmarks and shot down attempts to curb them. In fiscal year 2010, for example, Blunt personally requested some $153 million in earmarks, and he steadfastly opposed the Senate Republicans' attempt to prohibit earmarks in November. During his run for Senate, his reputation for larding up bills led his Democratic opponent, Robin Carnahan, to cast him as a "prodigious pork-meister" that cost taxpayers "$20 billion a year," contradicting his own calls for fiscal austerity.

The attacks didn't ultimately stick with voters, but that didn't stop the Wall Street Journal from dubbing the Missouri Republican "Senator Earmark" shortly after he was elected. Blunt hasn't let up on his defense of pork since he's taken office, either. After this week's State of the Union address, Blunt slammed Obama's vow to veto any bill with earmarks as a "power grab" that would "give the president too much power," arguing that the Constitution gave Congress the expiclit authority to dictate how spending would be apportioned. Blunt's pork-loving ways have drawn fire from the GOP's tea party right, who've already been infuriated with his House vote to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program, among other government spending bills.

Other Senate GOP newcomers—including Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—have gone squishy on earmarks as well. But Blunt's exceptionally staunch defense of earmarks could prove to be one of the biggest thorns in the GOP's side when it comes to the party's war on pork.

Following up on his call to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency in a speech in Iowa this week, former House Speaker and potential GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich outlined on Friday his plans to eliminate the EPA in an email to supporters. The former House speaker warns of the "job-killing nature of the EPA" and calls on his fans to "get the word out."

He also notes Obama's call in the State of the Union to streamline government, arguing that whether or not the president backs his plan to abolish the EPA will be a "very clear test case for whether President Obama is really serious about rebuilding the people's faith in the institutions of government."

He goes on to write:

Of all the government agencies that have become barriers to job creation and economic growth, the Environmental Protection Agency is the worst offender.
Since its founding 40 years ago, the EPA has transformed from an agency with the original noble mission of protecting the environment into a job-killing, centralizing engine of ideological litigation and regulation that blocks economic progress.
The EPA should therefore be replaced with a new and improved agency dedicated to bringing together science, technology, entrepreneurs, incentives, and local creativity to create a cleaner environment with a stronger economy that generates more American jobs and more American energy.

More on Gingrich's plan on the blog of his group American Solutions for Winning the Future. This is what passes for serious conservative talking points on the environment these days, folks.

Legalizing recreational drugs in the United States "is an entirely legitimate topic for debate," President Barack Obama said yesterday during an online chat session moderated by YouTube. He was responding to a retired deputy sheriff whose question criticizing the War on Drugs had been voted the most popular during the web video site's "Your Interview With the President" competition. 

While Obama quickly added that he's "not in favor of legalization," his comments went further than those of any past past president in questioning the wisdom of a drug policy based on arrests and incarceration. It was also a significant break from Obama's own rhetoric. During an online address in 2009, he'd dismissed outright a popular question about whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy, chuckling as he said, "No, I don't think that's a good strategy."

Obama's statement will probably to score points with people who favor pot legalization—according to some polls, nearly half of all Americans. In early 2009, he earned kudos from potheads when the Justice Department announced that it would stop raiding medical marijuana dispensaries that complied with state laws. In recent months, however, the IRS has intensified audits of California pot dispensaries, where marijuana is a $14-billion business with ties to venture capitalists and Wall Street (as I document in a recent feature, Weedmart).

Here's Obama yesterday, in his own words: 

U.S. Army Pfc. Corey Vanotegham, left, an infantry radio telephone operator from Victor, Iowa, both of Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, looks over the side of the road outside the town of Tupac, Afghanistan, Jan. 20. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs Office

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), charged by Congress with investigating the causes of the economic collapse, released its final report (PDF) on Thursday. It also made many of its source documents available, and promised to release others shortly. But on the second page of the preface (PDF), the commissioners warned that "more materials that cannot be released yet for various reasons will eventually be made public through the National Archives and Records Administration." For some of the commission's detractors, that's another sign of trouble from an already troubled body.

[Read Marilyn Snell on the FCIC's failure to interview actual victims of the mortgage crisis.]

Let me explain. Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York, has been a fierce critic of the commission. In October, Perino published Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American Finance. The book is a history of Senate staffer Ferdinand Pecora's pathbreaking work investigating the causes of the Great Depression during the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. Pecora's exposure of Wall Street wrongdoing gave fuel to Roosevelt's push for financial reform.

Perino says that the FCIC—an independent, non-congressional commission hamstrung by partisan division and restrictive ground rules—simply couldn't provide the same sort of reforming push that Pecora's investigation did, because it didn't have the power, the heft, or the perfect timing that Pecora did.

But the commissioners can still make a difference. "The most important thing the FCIC can do right now is release all of the documents and all the transcripts of interviews they've collected over the course of their investigation," Perino tells Mother Jones. "Opening up all those materials would allow independent investigators to pore through them and reach their own conclusions." (Perino wrote a piece for Fortune making a similar argument late last year.)

The FCIC's commissioners, for their part, believe that they've done their best to be transparent. But Phil Angelides, the FCIC's chairman, told Mother Jones in a Thursday conference call that the commission simply couldn't release everything. "In the course of doing this kind of inquiry, you look at many documents that are completely irrelevant," Angelides says. In addition, he says, "there are trade secret laws, other laws, federal law that controls the ability of the commission to release documents... It wouldn't be responsible to do a document dump of documents that weren't relevant to the crisis."

Angelides promised that the "predisposition of the commissioners" would be to have a "fairly short period" before the National Archives and Records Administration releases the FCIC documents that won't be released immediately. In the conference call, Angelides and fellow commissioner Brooksley Born refused to quantify what percentage of the commission's documents will be released at what times, but Born claimed that the commissioners "erred on the side of openness." 

Perino, however, has pointed out that today, years after the closure of the 9/11 commission, two-thirds of that body's documents still remain under seal—and there are national security concerns at stake there that do not apply to the FCIC's work.

Dean Baker, the co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, agrees with Perino's call for maximum transparency from the FCIC. "It certainly would be great to release it," Baker says. "In principle there's definitely a lot of stuff there that would require a lot of sifting through to make sense of." Baker's especially curious to see what people at the highest levels of mortgage lenders, securitizers, and bond ratings agencies knew about what they were selling, packaging, and rating. Angelides has promised that interviews with some top executives will be made available to the public. But it's unclear what will and will not be released. 

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, also endorsed Perino's call for transparency. Here's what he told me in a phone interview:

In this case, the commission came to a very frustrating impasse. The report, as I understand it, says [the financial crisis] was a preventable thing and preventable by lots of different measures. The Republican dissent is that this was caused by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's one of those disputes where it's not just two interpretations of common facts diverging from one another. Those are two different narratives coming out of the same commission, which lead in two different policy directions and really tell two different stories.

There are powerful incentives in certain institutions to just leave it at that. The most obvious one is the "he said/she said" journalism, where you say, "This is what the commission Republicans said, this is what the Democrats said, and really—who can tell." The release of documents provides a way for people to provide a check on that tendency.

Like Rosen, Angelides worries "there's going to be a very conscious, deliberate effort to rewrite history, to wave this away like it was a bump in the road." He can try to fight that tendency by immediately releasing all the documents the commission is not legally required to keep secret. Determining which documents are "relevant" is a task best left to the public, not FCIC staff members and commissioners deliberating behind closed doors.

It's no shocker that Sarah Palin is a big fan of oil. After all, it was Palin who popularized "Drill, baby, drill," back in 2008. And this morning she made it known again in her characteristic mode of communication, Facebook, with a screed protesting the energy plans Obama outlined in his State of the Union address this week:

When it comes to energy issues, we heard more vague promises last night as the President’s rhetoric suggested an all-of-the-above solution to meeting our country’s energy needs. But again, his actions point in a different direction. He offers a vision of a future powered by what he refers to as "clean energy," but how we will get there from here remains a mystery. In the meantime, he continues to stymie the responsible development of our own abundant conventional energy resources – the stuff we actually use right now to fuel our economy. His continued hostility towards domestic drilling means hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs will not be created and millions of Americans will end up paying more at the pump. It also means we’ll continue to transfer hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars to foreign regimes that don’t have America’s interests at heart.

While we're on the subject, see my post this morning on Blue Marble about how it's probably wishful thinking that energy is a "bipartisan" issue.

In 2009, Iowa State Rep. Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield, told me that he was thinking of fibbing his way into getting a medical marijuana card the next time he visited California. I laughed, but it turns out he wasn't joking. In October, the 71-year-old former state trooper and ardent drug warrior sent a letter to his constituents detailing how he'd visited the notoriously pot-friendly Golden State, falsely told a doctor that he suffered from depression and hemorrhoids, and scored a license to inhale. (Read Josh Harkinson's story on just how easy it is to get a pot card in California.)

Why the covert ops? "In essence, I got my prescription to show how asinine it would be to legalize 'medical marijuana,'" wrote Baudler, who opposes a proposal to pass a medical pot law in his home state. "Some of the states that have legalized 'medical marijuana' are now having trouble 'putting the toothpaste back in the tube.' They are attempting to backpedal, which is proving extremely difficult."

Yet Baudler might have to do some backpedaling of his own. Under California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996, anyone who "fraudulently represents a medical condition or fraudulently provides any material misinformation to a physician" can be tossed in jail for up to six months and fined up to $1,000. Baulder's defense: He'll gladly appear in front of an ethics board because the "oriental 'doctor'" who "only spoke broken English" probably isn't a licensed physician. 

Who's Afraid of "Death Panels"?

Having cast a mostly symbolic vote to repeal the entire health care law last week, House Republicans have moved on to the next stage of their anti-reform crusade. In my latest story, I explain how GOPers have begun introducing bills to repeal individual parts of the legislation, going after a new Medicare advisory board that they've accused of rationing care through a Soviet-style bureaucracy. The GOP has also begun trying to undermine reform through Congressional hearings: on Wednesday, House Republicans grilled Obama administration officials about reform, accusing the law of hampering job creation and casting doubt on the savings that Democrats say that it will achieve.

To a large extent, these moves are largely political: with Democrats still controlling the Senate and White House, it's highly unlikely that the major parts of the bill will end up being repealed or seriously undermined. At the same time, the Republican provocations aren't purely symbolic, as some parts of the law are genuinely vulnerable to being undone.

As I explain in my story, bipartisan opposition to the new Medicare advisory board—combined with the revived fear-mongering that it will lead to "death panels"— could lead to its demise during the current Congress. And even the Obama administration has showed itself to be vulnerable to the most pointed political attacks. After the health care bill passed, the White House quietly reinserted a controversial rule that would provide Medicare reimbursements to doctors who provided end-of-life counseling—the catalyst for the original "death panel" attacks.

After The New York Times revealed what the White House had done in December, a conservative uproar about "death panels" came roaring back. Rather than defend the policy, the Obama administration bent to political pressure and killed the rule. The flip-flop suggests that the Republicans may have more power to force the administration to undo other policies that the right has linked to its faulty "death panel" meme than some might have thought.

How much firepower does the gun lobby have? Consider this: since the mid-90s, the NRA has "all but choked off" money for research on gun violence, according to a story today in the New York Times. "We've been stopped from answering the basic questions," said Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which used to be the leading source of financing for firearms research. Thanks to the gun lobby's obstruction, questions like whether more guns actually make communities safer, whether the ready availability of high-capacity magazines increases the number of gun-related deaths, or whether more rigorous background checks of gun buyers make a difference, remain maddeningly unanswered.

From the Times:

The dearth of money can be traced in large measure to a clash between public health scientists and the N.R.A. in the mid-1990s. At the time, Dr. Rosenberg and others at the C.D.C. were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon, financing studies that found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Alarmed, the N.R.A. and its allies on Capitol Hill fought back. The injury center was guilty of "putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science," said [Chief NRA lobbyist Chris] Cox, who also worked on this issue for the N.R.A. more than a decade ago.

Pro-gun lawmakers failed to shutter the injury center in 1996, but did manage to prevent the CDC from using its injury prevention funds to push for gun control measures. As a result: the CDC has tiptoed around gun safety issues in the years since, keeping meaningful data on gun violence out of the hands of lawmakers who could use it to help pass sensible reform legislation. Until then, the NRA can rest easy and ask: where's your proof?

The latest financial filings for Sarah Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, are out, and the secretive research shop Daniel Schulman and I investigated in November remains on Palin's payroll. According to new Federal Election Commission filings, SarahPAC paid $4,000 on November 24 to Paideia Limited for "research." But as we uncovered, Paideia is a shell corporation; its address leads to a mail drop in rural Wyoming, and even the lawyer who incorporated the company doesn't know who's behind it.

After digging through both American and British business records, and calling all over the country, we eventually tracked down the man behind Paideia: a Dutch right-wing journalist named Joshua Livestro. His background is hardly common for an American political operation:

The 40-year-old is not your typical hire for an American political operation. He has worked as a columnist for the Benelux version of Reader's Digest and the Dutch newspaper De Telegraf. He's also the founder and editor-in-chief of De Dagelijkse Standaard (or, The Daily Standard), a right-wing political blog that weighs in frequently on Palin. In the 1990s, he worked with England's Conservative Party; he went on to become an assistant to Frits Bolkestein, then a European Commission member for internal market and financial services.

More recently, he's been a combative contributor to the website Conservatives4Palin. There he took on Palin's critics on the left and the right, attacking journalists including Marc Ambinder (then of The Atlantic, now of National Journal), Politico's Ben Smith, and National Review's Jonah Goldberg, among many others.

So why Livestro? It turned out Sarah PAC brought him on to advise Palin on the European debt crisis—a move that struck some, like conservative David Frum, by surprise. "Why is a potential president relying for economic advice on freelance journalists rather than Nobel Prizewinners?" Frum wrote on his blog. "It's almost as if Gov. Palin finds the idea of expertise—not merely incomprehensible—but actively repugnant." But Palin and her team must like Livestro well enough if they're keeping him on the SarahPAC payroll.

All told, Sarah PAC did quite well at the end of 2010. The committee raised $275,000 in the last six weeks of 2010. And in 2010 in general, Sarah PAC drummed up $3.5 million, and the committee still has $1.3 million on hand. With that hefty sum in the bank, Palin's committee stands ready to bolster the Alaskan's presidential bid if—more like, when—she officially announces her presidential run.