Mojo - January 2011

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for Janary 27, 2011

Thu Jan. 27, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A U.S. Army Soldier from Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, works his way through some brush outside the village of Nengaresh, Afghanistan, Jan. 21. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs Office

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Fox News Missed Obama's SOTU PowerPoint

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 8:11 PM EST

Ellen Ratner, one of Fox News Channel's on-air White House pundits, has a bone to pick with President Obama's State of the Union address: It was soooo 1.0. In a FoxNews.com missive titled "Obama's State of the Union Speech—Where Was the Power Point?" Ratner disses the prez for being long-winded ("The speech needs to be shorter. A good speech can be given in twenty or thirty minutes.") She also takes issue with the medium of his speech:

Now, with people clicking on the Web [sic] for information 24/7, it is time for the State of the Union becomes a place where Americans watching from home or office can consume the information in a manner that makes sense for them...

What if the president had prepared a clear PowerPoint presentation on the taxpayer dollars given to the oil companies by taxpayers and had shown citizens how he would use that additional revenue to invest in "tomorrow's energy."

She goes on to list a couple of other things the POTUS should have included in a State of the Union PowerPoint. And the thing is: He did. Aside from her in-touch-with-reality problem about taxpayer dollars going to oil companies (we love our civic duty to keep our petro-CEOs accustomed to making $141,000 a day!), Ratner's got a big not-doing-her-homework problem, too: The White House released a detailed graphic presentation of its SOTU agenda online. It's included below.

Wyoming State Rep.: Ban Sharia, Blow Up Congress

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 6:59 PM EST

Step aside, Joe Manchin. Meet Wyoming state representive Gerald Gay, of the great city of Casper. Last week, Gay introduced legislation to ban Sharia law from being implemented in his state, making Wyoming the 11th state to consider such a proposal. (So far only Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma have actually banned Islamic law.)

Today, Sarah Posner digs a bit deeper and finds that Gay's far-right rhetoric extends well beyond fears of a North American caliphate. In a series of campaign videos last year, Gay, equipped with a Smith & Wesson double-action revolver, a pump-action shotgun, and a semi-automatic AR-15, destroys "socialism," the Affordable Care Act, the US Capitol, and cap-and-trade (depicted in the video as two rather unfortunate turkeys). As he explains, following the symbolic destruction of President Obama's legislative agenda, "that's the way you deal with those kinds of government programs." More, via Religion Dispatches:

[Gay's] web page at the State of Wyoming Legislature website also says he belongs to the JPFO -- Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. The JPFO, which is popular with militia groups, claims, among other things, that the late Sen. Thomas Dodd asked the Library of Congress to translate the Nazi Gun Control Act of 1938 into English so he could use it for the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, and more generally insists that the citizenry needs to be armed against government "tyranny," which can lead to genocide. This sort of conspiracy theory is not unlike those being promoted by far right Christian groups after the Tucson shootings.

Update: South Carolina lawmakers, who unsuccessfully attempted ban Sharia last year, are at it again.

House Votes to Gut Presidential Public Financing

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 4:16 PM EST

The House of Representatives voted 239 to 160 on Wednesday, along party lines, to eliminate public financing for presidential elections. The bill to axe the Presidential Election Fund, as it's known, was brought to a vote without any committee hearings or expert testimony, and after only a day's worth of floor debate. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a staunch advocate of public financing, has called the move "a sneak attack on the system." Campaign reform advocates have likewise decried the financing repeal vote, saying it would usher in a new Watergate-like era where special interests—not regular voters—decide who wins and loses in American elections. "House Republicans voted to turn the presidency over to influence-seeking big donors, bundlers, and corporate and other outside spenders," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in a statement.

The public financing bill now moves to the Senate, where it's unlikely to gain traction because Democrats still hold a slim majority.

As I reported on Monday, the presidential public financing system, which also funds party conventions, emerged from the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. After it was revealed that Richard Nixon's re-election campaign had illegally accepted donations from big corporations, Congress created a public financing system that would encourage small donations and reduce the influence of special interests. Except for Barack Obama, every presidential candidate, Democratic and Republican, since 1976 has used the system.

Campaign finance reformers said it is crucial to reform public financing, not eliminate it. "Imagine if you didn't make any changes to the tax code since 1976. Of course public financing is outdated," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. "The issue, then, is not to get rid of, but how to fix." Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans have previously supported fixing the system, as I noted on Monday:

Legislation to make presidential public financing more competitive has won support from both parties in the past. In 2003, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) of and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would reform the public financing system; Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) filed a companion bill in the House. "The public financing system for presidential elections, which aims to allow candidates to run competitive campaigns without becoming overly dependent on private donors, is a system worth improving and preserving," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The Impractical Impracticalness of Rand Paul

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 1:29 PM EST

Between the Republicans' pledge to return to Bush-era spending levels, Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) retreat from the party's pledge to slash $100 billion, and the never-ending back and forth over cutting earmark and defense spending, the GOP is having a tough time turning its fiscal fever dreams into reality.

Enter The Paul.

Not to be upstaged by the White House and the President's State of the Union address on Tuesday, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.) introduced a massive spending cut bill that slashes $500 billion from the federal budget in—wait for it—one year, reports Politico. Recently, Republicans pledged to roll spending back to 2008 levels, a commitment Paul supports. He sees his cuts as his own, not-so-little contribution to the spending solution.

Agencies, departments, and programs Paul wants to eliminate include:

• the Department of Housing and Urban Development

• Department of Energy

• Most of the Education Department (with the exception of Pell Grants for low income college students)

• The Consumer Product Safety Commission, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the national endowments for the humanities and the arts

• All foreign aid

Paul's budget also cuts funding for the federal court system and Agriculture Department by almost a third, while the FDA would suffer a 62% cut. Meanwhile, homeland security spending would be sliced almost in half.

And on defense spending:

Paul's 12-page bill appears to state its defense cuts as a series of 10 percent reductions from President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request—not yet fully enacted. But as described in accompanying material provided by the senator’s office, the end result would be about a 2.7 percent cut below 2010 levels—far more severe than anything envisioned by House Republicans. Most controversial could be a proposed $16 billion reduction from the overseas contingency funds provided for the military for the current fiscal year.

Paul's communications director, Moira Bagley, told Politico that the senator is willing to extend his time horizon beyond 2011 in hopes of drumming up more support for his cuts. "He sees this as a way to begin the conversation," she said. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll shows that over 60 percent of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare, Social Security and education funding. A majority, though, support spending less on foreign aid.

Paul appears to be entirely earnest about his bill. But it's not clear that a huge package of unrealistic, controversial cuts will help the Republicans seem serious about their spending goals. In other words, if this is the best they can offer, they're in trouble.

Obama's SOTU: Pentagon Gets Off Easy

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 12:07 PM EST

During his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama talked about the need to slash government spending, and he even referred to Pentagon spending. But Gordon Adams, an expert on military spending, says that Obama is pulling his punches:

When it came to defense, though, Obama deferred to the Pentagon and shied away from any game-changing vision on par with his other ideas.

We saw this deference in quick sequence.  Last year the president promised a three-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending but excluded defense; this year he extended that freeze to five years and again exempted defense. Obama then bowed to the Pentagon, noting that “the Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.”

Deferring to a bureaucratic interest to determine what resources it can and cannot do without is not ‘tackling excessive spending.’  It’s posturing – the image of discipline without the pain of making it real. That shortchanges the taxpayer, neglects the service-member, and undermines the civil-military balance on which our republic is premised.

For the taxpayer, trusting the Pentagon, one of the few cabinet-level agencies unable to meet the standards of financial audit, to set its own budget is a sure path toward the spending waste and excess the president claims to be tackling....

Much work therefore remains to be done. National defense is on the table for debt reduction, as it should be. But the conversation is still immature, the outcome uncertain, and the stakes especially high.

 

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Foreclosure Mills Pocketed $50M From Fannie, Freddie

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 9:24 AM EST

In late November, as the Foreclosure-gate scandal spread throughout the country, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) demanded to know how much money Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the wounded quasi-government housing corporations, had paid to multiple sleazy law firms at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. One of the firms Neugebauer had in his crosshairs, the Law Offices of David J. Stern in southeastern Florida, had been the subject of a long Mother Jones investigation in August, which also detailed how Fannie and Freddie gave rise to this unscrupulous and greedy breed of law firms. This week Neugebauer got his response: according to data reviewed by HousingWire, the firms in question received nearly $50 million in legal fees from Fannie and Freddie.

Most of that money, $46 million, came from Freddie Mac, the smaller of the two corporations; Fannie paid the controversial firms $2 million. That's quite a hefty sum for Florida's largest "foreclosure mills," as they're known. But the coziness between Fannie and Freddie and the foreclosure mills doesn't stop there. After all, foreclosure mills wouldn't exist were it not for the creation of the two government corporations. As I wrote in August,

Fannie and Freddie also reshaped the foreclosure industry. Their huge holdings meant they had to deal with thousands of foreclosures annually—even during time when relatively few loans were going bad. In the 1990s, the market expanded into subprime territory to feed the securitization beast, and borrowers began defaulting at higher rates. Hiring lawyers on a case-by-case basis was burdensome, so Fannie and Freddie put together a stable of law firms willing to litigate large bundles of foreclosures quickly and cheaply. They urged these handpicked firms to bring all foreclosure-related services—inspections, eviction notices, sales of repossessed properties, and so forth—in-house. Thus emerged the foreclosure supermarket.

David Stern joined that stable of firms in the 1990s, and was even named Fannie's "Attorney of the Year" in 1998 and 1999. So important were Fannie and Freddie's business to him that he considered them "his babies," according to a former employee.

But as soon as Stern's ship began to sink last year, and the Florida attorney general began investigating his operations, Fannie and Freddie dumped Stern and began using other smaller Florida firms. A number of Wall Street banks cut him out of their foreclosure businesses as well, including Citigroup and Bank of America. Right now, the stock of the publicly traded he helped to start, DJSP Enterprises, a foreclosure processing outfit, is languishing around $.50 and faces delisting from NASDAQ, if it doesn't rebound.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 26, 2011

Wed Jan. 26, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) AH-64 Apache helicopter undergoes maintenance checks as the sun sets on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The 101st CAB is based out of Fort Campbell, Ken. Photo via U.S. Army.

"He Did a Good Job—He Almost Sounded Like a Republican"

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 1:29 AM EST

Listening to Republicans' immediate reaction to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, you'd almost think they didn't hear the same speech. "I thought he did a good job—he almost sounded like a Republican," freshmen Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), said minutes after exiting the House floor. Another freshman, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), told Mother Jones, "It sounded like a lot more of the same—a lot more government spending." Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) hit both points at once: "It was a president caught between two worlds—the world of trying to be a fiscal conservative and the world of trying to appease his base."

Though Republicans were quick to slam the key pillars of Obama's speech—his call for greater innovation, infrastructure spending, and education investments—as just "another stimulus," but the president's biggest critics were willing to admit there was a lot to like as well.

Obama's promise to revamp the tax code garnered praise from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a top-ranking conservative. "If he wants to work with Republicans to fundamentally flatten the tax code of all the various loopholes and credits and deductions, [we're] happy to work with him on that," Hensarling said, as he waited in line for a cable appearance.

Firebrand conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said that he was pleasantly surprised by the president's nod to clean coal. "It was couched in the language subtly," he said. "But maybe he is giving us some openings for all energy all the time, which I'm for."

West, the Florida freshmen, even showed off his copy of Obama's speech: In the margins, he'd scribbled, "Good point!" near the president's lines praising teachers and addressing illegal immigration.

To be sure, the parts of the speech that drew the most Republican cheers also have the dimmest chance of becoming law: there's little political drive on either side for a comprehensive energy bill, immigration refrom, or tax-reform legislation. And Republicans are still bent on beating up Obama on the budget. Though the president's call for a freeze on all discretionary government spending drew a few gasps, King noted that that the freeze would only be "a good thing" if Obama were to roll back spending to 2008 levels—a massive cut that House Republicans are demanding.

In King's view, even the much-ballyhooed across-the-aisle seating arrangement showed the limits of bipartisanship: Members of each party couldn't applaud as a block, he noted, and so  "there wasn't much response from the crowd. I've never been a SOTU address and seen such a flat response."

Florida Republicans Planning a Putsch?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 9:03 PM EST

Over the next few weeks, yours truly is going to highlight the political sideshow that is the Sunshine State in a little feature I'd like to call "What's the Matter With Florida?" From the new billionaire ex-CEO governor who can't count or set a budget, to his regulatory logjamming and pro-corporate political appointments, to the GOP-run legislature's fight against fair voter districting (2000 anyone?), to statewide Republicans' preoccupation with residents' poop tanksit's a real-time lesson in what conservative-dominated governance looks like in America after George W. Bush.

As a taste, here's but a single development on a single day:

Screw the Fountain of Youth. Florida House Republicans have discovered something better in one of their smoky, hubris-filled back rooms: a hot-tub time machine.

At least, that seems the most plausible explanation for today's developments: They dropped trou, jumped into the warm frothy waters of their  whirlpool, and used it to travel six years hence, when they shall continue to reign benevolently over the state's lower legislative chamber. The St. Petersburg Times reports:

We're hearing from a top Miami Republican lawmaker that Miami-Dade's Republican delegation, the biggest in the state, voted as a bloc to make Rep. Richard Corcoran House Speaker in 2017-18. Though he's a Suncoast guy, Corcoran had big Miami bonafides: He was the chief of staff to Miami's only House Speaker, Marco Rubio, the current U.S. senator and Republican star.

...from what the lawmakers and consultocracy are telling us, Corcoran is well on his way to succeeded Chris Dorworth who will succeed Will Weatherford who will succeed current House Speaker Dean Cannon.

Wuzzat? You wanted to know how it's possible that a political party already has its next four speakers of the 120-seat Florida House picked out, when voters have yet to go to the 2012, 2014, and 2016 polls and grant that party a majority of the seats? And you don't buy the hot-tub thing?