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The Federal Election Commission is the sole watchdog overseeing the increasingly shadowy world of US campaign finance, and by most accounts, it is a hopeless shell of regulator. In a sharply worded letter (PDF) sent to President Obama today, eight good government groups implored the president to pay more attention to the broken FEC, and to consider replacing five of the agency's commissioners who, come May 1, will be eligible to be replaced. "The effort to remake the FEC and restore the integrity of our campaign finance laws cannot begin until you nominate new Commissioners," the letter reads.

The groups behind the letter include Democracy 21, a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Public Citizen, and Common Cause, among others. They call the FEC "a national campaign finance scandal," and point to agency's three Republican commissioners—Don McGahn, Matthew Petersen, and Caroline Hunter—as the root of the FEC's problems. "The actions of these Commissioners," the reform groups write, "have turned the FEC into a rogue, non-functioning enforcement agency."

Here's an example of the FEC's dysfunction cited in today's letter:

According to a BNA Report (March 4, 2011), the FEC professional staff found through audits that the Kansas Republican party and a unit of Georgia Democratic party each had improperly used campaign funds. Three Commissioners voted to support the FEC staff’s findings in both cases.

The three obstructionist Commissioners, however, voted to reject the staff’s recommendations in both cases and thereby blocked findings that the Republican and Democratic Party committees each had committed campaign finance violations.

And that kind of deadlock is all too frequent at the FEC, which was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. To replace the current crop of commissioners, the eight reform groups suggest the president create a bipartisan "advisory group" to hand-pick qualified candidates, even though the process is traditionally handled by Congress.

Bypassing Congress on the FEC won't help the president move his other agenda items forward. But the reform groups say the president cannot stay idle in his handling of the agency. There's too much at stake. Several billion dollars are expected to be spent on the 2012 presidential race alone. 

Read the groups' letter to President Obama:

Reform Groups' Letter to President Obama on FEC

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Update: The three-week CR passed, with Obamacare intact. Apparently we're mice.

Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann implored House GOPers to defund the Affordable Care Act at a forum at the Capitol on Wednesday evening, calling the upcoming vote on a three-week continuing resolution "our mice and men moment." Speaking to a small audience of about two dozen mostly junior staffers, interns, and reporters, Bachmann warned that the continuing resolution, along with an upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling, represent House GOPers' last best chance to defund the law, nearly one year after it was signed into law.

"This is our mice or men moment. We need to show whether we are mice or men," Bachmann said. "It is not for us to wait for us to fight when it's easy... Now is our moment. What are we made of: Are we mice, or are we men?"


Bachmann wants her colleagues to vote against any continuing resolution that doesn't explicitly strip funding from health care reform—although as Alex Altman notes, a continuing resolution can't defund Obamacare.

"They wanted what they wanted, the people of the United States be damned," Bachmann said. "This was a fraud that was perpetrated on the people and on the Congress. We should be shouting from the rooftops, 'Give the money back!'"

A Republican candidate running for Rep. Chris "Craigslist" Lee's seat in upstate New York isn't doing his scandalized party any favors. Jack Davis, a local businessman vying for the seat, shocked local GOP leaders by suggesting that the area's Hispanic farmworkers should be deported, and that inner city blacks should be bused in to pick the crops instead, as The Buffalo News reports

Davis made the comments during a February 20 endorsement interview with local Republican Party leaders—and it's not the first time he's floated the idea.  In 2008, Davis told another local paper:  "We have a huge unemployment problem with black youth in our cities. Put them on buses, take them out there [to the farms] and pay them a decent wage; they will work."

Local Republicans leaders have quickly distanced themselves from Davis' inflammatory comments. "Maybe in 1860 that might have been seen by some as an appropriate comment, but not now," Amherst GOP Chairman Marshall Wood told the Buffalo News. But Davis—who's previously run for the seat as a Democrat—seems determined to continue his bid for the special election in May, casting himself as an anti-trade populist with tea party appeal. 

What's next? A state Republican arguing that the physically and mentally disabled should be euthanized or just sent to Siberia? Or that illegal immigrants should be shot from helicopters like "feral hogs"? Oh no—both of those things have already happened.


In just one election cycle, Republican guru Karl Rove helped build right-wing outside spending groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS into political juggernauts. Rove's Crossroads groups played a major role in the GOP's 2010 election trouncing, and are now plotting their 2012 strategy and raising bundles of money. Democrats, on the other hand, are searching for their own powerful outside groups, and for a figurehead, like Rove, to fight the flow of conservative cash in the next election.

As the Center for Public Integrity's Peter Stone writes, the Democrats have yet to find their own Rove. They failed to react quick enough to the unregulated, post-Citizens United world of campaign spending in 2010, and now must play catch-up if they want to compete with American Crossroads and its ilk. That said, top liberal strategists including David Brock, founder of the watchdog group Media Matters for America, and ex-White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney are quickly making up the lost ground, Stone reports:

Democrats initially stayed on the sidelines of the outside group money chase. But by fall, as the US House began to slip away, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees jumped in with $91 million, which led spending by all groups. AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said unions, now at war in states like Wisconsin with newly elected Republican governors, are determined to do more.

"We have to build a broader coalition to counter Rove & Co.," McEntee said. "2010 provided a lesson and a beating. We have a lot of work to do."

Democrats also hope to lure millions from George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and hedge fund titan who sat out 2010. For now, they have a commitment from several rich liberals, including Taco Bell heir Rob McKay, who is backing David Brock’s new venture, American Bridge 21st Century. Brock, a former conservative journalist turned liberal activist, intends to do opposition research and run millions in television ads to influence the presidential and congressional elections.

Two former White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, are launching another group to focus on Obama’s re-election.

"Democratic donors are in a fighting spirit. Rove and his allies were virtually unopposed" in the last elections, Brock told the Center. “We’re not going to let that happen again."

When it comes to the biggest battle of them all, the 2012 presidential campaign, Democrats don't need to worry quite as much. In 2008, Barack Obama made use of a network of 324 "bundlers," the well-connected donors who gather donations totaling upwards of $100,000, to raise more than $32 million. Still, members of Team Obama have been hitting the pavement lately to reassure supporters heading into the 2012 race:

[W]ithin days of leaving the White House last month, former deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who will manage the re-election campaign, was on a nationwide tour. His mission was to reconnect with big bundlers, some of whom have grumbled publicly that they haven’t received enough attention from the White House and have been irked by its tough rhetoric aimed at Wall Street executives.

Messina’s first stop was Manhattan, to soothe anxieties about the administration’s attitudes towards business. On Feb. 3, Messina talked policy and politics with two dozen wealthy Democrats at the swank Park Avenue apartment of Ralph Schlosstein, the CEO of investment banking firm Evercore Partners, and his wife Jane Hartley, a long time Democratic fundraiser.

Those attending the cocktail party included Evercore executive Charles Myers; Orin Kramer, a general partner of Boston Provident, a big hedge fund; and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, president emeritus of the New School in New York.

Messina’s New York meetings were part of a choreographed effort in several big money centers such as Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to improve the president’s standing.

Bundlers suggest that a few of the administration’s pro-business moves since the fall elections have helped calm business jitters: the selection of William Daley, the Chicago-based banker, to be his chief of staff, and backing the extension of the Bush tax cuts, including those for the very rich.

In politics, as in life, scarcity is the mother of invention. Texas Democrats face a paucity of money, candidates, and votes heading into the 2012 race for US Senate. Which has inspired liberal Houston radio host Geoff Berg to hatch a brilliant idea: Draft actor Tommy Lee Jones for the job.

"If he accepted our offer," Berg says, "I don't see how he doesn't immediately become the front runner."

Jones would certainly have a lot going for him as a politico in the Lone Star State. He was raised in Dallas, lives near San Antonio, and has a cattle ranch in San Saba. Between his Hollywood connections and Al Gore, his college roommate from his Harvard days, he'd rake in plenty of campaign cash. And perhaps most importantly, he looks totally natural in a cowboy hat. He need not share the fears of the competent-yet-bald former mayor of Houston, Bill White, a Democrat who rarely doffed the state headgear in last year's race against Governor Good Hair for worry of being labeled a poser.

No doubt, battling aliens with a J2 blaster in Men in Black III would be a lot more fun and lucrative for Jones than an uphill fight against hordes of tea baggers. (Jones' publicist did not return a call). And yet. . . maybe politics is in Jones' destiny. His filmography could be so effective against Texas Republicans that he might as well have orchestrated it to pad his campaign resume. Forthwith, a map of how Jones can use his movies to win Texas (elaboration below the jump):

How Tommy Lee Jones Can Win TexasHow Tommy Lee Jones Can Win Texas

U.S. Army Soldiers from Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, Colo., observe a CV-22 Osprey during Emerald Warrior 2011, Cannon AFB, N.M., March 1. Emerald Warrior is a U.S. Special Operations Command sponsored, multiservice exercise designed to leverage lessons learned from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom to provide trained and ready forces to combatant commanders. US Air Force photo by Tech Sgt DeNoris Mickle

With a nuclear emergency under way in Japan, nuclear power advocates in the United States have lost one of their key talking points. And that includes President Barack Obama.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in October 2009, Obama specifically cited Japan as a model for America's nuclear renaissance. "There's no reason why, technologically, we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way," Obama said. "Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."

Nuclear power is part of the "clean energy standard" that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget, the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. "We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget.

The administration isn't backing off its support for nuclear, despite the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan. In Monday's White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy "remains a part of the president's overall energy plan."

Obama is far from alone in touting Japan's nuclear industry in order to sell nuclear power in the US. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has called for 100 new nuclear plants to be built in the nation over the next two decades, praised Japan's use of nuclear power during a 2009 congressional hearing. Nuclear proponent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has also promoted Japan as nuclear energy pioneer. In a letter to fellow lawmakers in May 2009, she wrote: "...Asian countries like Japan, have developed nuclear plants as a safe and cost effective source of power over the last three decades."

Last February, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), now the chairman of the House natural resources committee, also hailed Japan as an example for the US to follow.

Around the world, nations like France, Britain and Japan have relied on nuclear power for a large percentage of their energy for many years. They are the beneficiaries of reliable and safe energy to heat their homes and run their economy. The opposition to embracing new nuclear in the United States isn't driven by science - it's driven by politics.

The situation in Japan, where the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is at risk of a meltdown and three other plants are also experiencing problems, will certainly make it harder for nuclear energy advocates, including the president and his aides, to assert that this is a safe option. Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Greg Jaczko are slated to appear before the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday to discuss the president's budget plan, and the expansion of the nuclear loan guarantee program is certain to be a focal point. Presumably, they won't be touting Japan's nuclear program.

With conservative heavyweights planning to spend lavishly to topple President Obama—the White House anticipates $500 million or more in outside spending—the biggest challenge facing Obama aides and the Democratic Party is amassing a campaign war chest large enough to fight back against the Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove's Crossroads groups, and so on.

The Wall Street Journal today has an in-depth look at the Obama team's early courting of donors in cities such as Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York. The "strategy briefings" by Obama aides, featuring the requisite PowerPoint presentation branded with the "Change the Matters" slogan, emphasizes the president's "clear but narrowed support" in blue-collar, Midwestern states, but points out the stiff challenge facing Obama from deep-pocketed donors on the right. More from the WSJ:

The president's political aides, people at the meetings said, are trying to establish stronger ties to some of these donors as they navigate what may be a difficult fund-raising environment.

Part of Mr. Messina's presentation is to caution donors that while Mr. Obama has recovered after the trouncing his party took in the 2010 elections and is well-positioned for 2012, he will face a tough re-election fight that will require substantial donor support, according to people familiar with the presentation...

When he discussed the emerging GOP field in Miami, Mr. Messina made no mention of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, participants said, even though Mr. Pawlenty has clearly been taking steps to build a White House campaign.

But Mr. Messina did talk about what Obama aides see as likely vulnerabilities for Jon Huntsman, the president's outgoing ambassador to China, who is leaving his post to consider a campaign against his boss. The focus on Mr. Huntsman suggests Democrats see a threat in the former Utah governor, considered a moderate among potential GOP candidates...

Mr. Messina's pitch to donors stresses the need to build a network in states of small business owners and religious leaders, particularly among Latino and African-American voters. His overall message, according to a Florida donor, was, "We're in good shape, and we want to reconnect with you."

President Barack Obama is making today an education day. He's appearing at a middle school in Arlington, Virginia, to talk about "reforming education in order to win the future," according to a White House press release. And he's calling on Congress to "fix" George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law "before the start of the next school year."

For Marylanders, today is an appropriate moment for such a call. This morning, schools in their state are holding the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) tests for certain grades. This is a series of tests of math and reading achievement that is mandated by the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools will rise or fall, depending on the results of these tests, which supposedly will reveal how well the schools are performing. But here's one data point that may not be factored into the equation: daylight savings time.

Due to springing forward one hour on Sunday morning, my sixth-grade daughter had a tougher-than-usual time dragging herself out of bed this morning in the dark. She begged to be allowed to sleep in. (That reminded me of a line I once heard Tom Waits growl: The only amount of sleep I ever needed was five more minutes.) Her car-pool friend had the same problem this morning. As we reached their middle school, I saw dozens of kids who seemed to be trudging up the hill toward the school more trudgingly than usual. And many of them were heading toward the MSA test being conducted in the first period.

So this final day of MSA testing will occur when the kids are not all right but exhausted. No doubt, this will affect test results. And I don't think scores are adjusted for weariness. It was a lousy idea to schedule the MSA on a Monday morning following a time change. But this does illustrate a flaw in the law: standardized testing can be significantly influenced by factors that have nothing to do with the actual performance of a school and its teachers. This is not to say that testing has no role in evaluating school systems and teachers. But rigid adherence to testing will not serve the students or teachers. Just ask my daughter later about the value of today's MSA in judging her school experience. That is, if she's not napping.

Soldiers spot a UH-60 Black Hawk while it's loaded on to a C-5 Galaxy on 2 March 2011 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Black Hawk upload was part of a change out. The old helicopters are being replaced by new airframes. The Soldiers are assigned to the 563rd Aviation Support Battalion out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Willard E. Grande