Mojo - July 2011

Memo to Tea Party: The US Government's Budget is Not Like a Family's

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Tea party activists and members of Congress have a story they like to tell about the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling. It goes like this: If American families ran their households like the federal government, we'd all be bankrupt. It's a pretty common line. So when the Tea Party Express took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a hastily arranged (and sparsely attended) rally to urge Republicans to "hold the line" in the debt ceiling fight, it was no surprise that the family-government comparison was on everyone's lips.

"I really equate it to the family," Cindy Chafian, a mother of five who recently moved to Virginia, told me after speaking at the rally, which also drew tea party luminaries like Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). Chafian, who founded a new organization called the Mommy Lobby, acknowledged that government spending cuts can be painful—just like when a family that has to cut expenses, or when she tells her kids they can't go to the movies because they can't afford it. But over the long run, Chafian said, things work out and get better.

Melissa Ortiz, the founder of a new group, Able Americans, and a proud disabled tea party stalwart, echoed similar sentiments. "If you raise [the debt ceiling], it's just like getting a new credit card," she said, arguing that families have to live within their budgets and the government should too.

The family-to-government comparison is appealing. But in practice, there are huge differences between the federal government and the average nuclear family. "If you want to compare the government to anything, compare it to a business. Typical businesses borrow money and they never pay it off," argues Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker says a corporate board would think a CEO was out of his mind if he came to them and announced that while the company lost money, it had paid off its debt. "Maybe the government is more like AT&T than like me and Joey."

Baker explains that if tea partiers want to frame the debt debate in terms of family finances, they'd be better off to compare the debt ceiling issue to having signed an apartment lease. "We're arguing on whether we're going to send in the rent check," he said. "We're deciding whether we're going to pay our bills or screw someone. We're talking about making payments on commitments we've made."

The tea partiers, though, don't seem inclined to view the debate that way, or even to acknowledge that most families have tons of debt they never pay off, namely in the form of big mortgages. They also don't seem willing to acknowledge that sometimes even a family strapped for cash will seek out a revenue solution, like a second job, akin to the government raising taxes. None of the tea partiers I spoke with was willing to entertain the idea of, for example, letting the Bush tax cuts expire. One man, who was volunteering for a tea party candidate running for a Virginia Senate seat and declined to give his name, even expressed deep cynicism that raising taxes would even do any good. Big companies like GE don't pay taxes now, he said, so why would they pay taxes if they went up?

Still, the handful of tea partiers who came to Capitol Hill Wednesday didn't seem quite as willing to drive the economy into a ditch as some media coverage has implied. Chafian, for her part, says, "I'd like to not see [the debt ceiling] raised, but I'm also a realist." Her husband is a 19-year veteran of the US Navy, so she understands the implications of the government running out of money. If the debt negotiations fail, her family may have to cut its spending. Even so, she still wants to see Congress bring spending more in line with revenue, and also to pass the balanced budget amendment, even though she realizes that making it official would be a long, drawn out process.

The tea partiers also weren't entirely united about the performance of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has been under fire from some tea party groups for not pushing hard enough against raising the debt limit under any terms. "I think he's doing the best he can with what he has to work with," Ortiz says. Just like a family?

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Election Watchdogs vs. IRS

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 8:15 PM EDT

A recent petition by a pair of election watchdogs is calling on the IRS to crack down on organizations that have been exploiting a loophole in the campaign finance system. Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center filed a joint petition with the agency on Wednesday, challenging its definition of a tax exempt-501(c)(4) social welfare organization.

Tax exempt-501(c)(4)s can take in unlimited amounts of money without disclosing their donors and they are not beholden to the contribution limits established by the Federal Election Commission. But poorly defined rules surrounding 501(c)(4)s have allowed groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS to spend millions on campaigns. "A growing number of these organizations have nothing whatsoever to do with the promotion of 'social welfare' and everything to do with the promotion of 'partisan warfare,'" said the Campaign Legal Center's Paul Ryan.

So how much can these groups spend? On this point, the IRS is maddeningly unclear. Groups can engage in political activity, so long as that isn't their "primary" focus. Sound a little…vague?

Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center think so. Their petition argues that the IRS' "primary" activity standard is bogus, and has allowed 501(c)(4)s to define the rule for themselves. Their interpretation: that they can spend up to 49 percent of their expenditures in a tax year on campaign activities without breaking the rules.

But the joint petition cites court rulings suggesting that 49 percent is too much, and that 501(c)(4)s shouldn’t be able to spend that much on campaign activities while hanging onto their tax exempt status. "In fact, the court cases go in the completely opposite direction to limit spending to no more than an insubstantial amount of campaign expenditures," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.

As Mother Jones has reported, these dark money groups—mostly Republican-leaning—were the prime driver for financing attack ads in the 2010 elections. "What we have seen in recent years is a proliferation of c4 political front groups that abuse their privileged tax exempt status to evade campaign finance disclosure laws," said Ryan. "What was once a small trickle of abuse by these organizations is now a gusher."

The petition makes a simple request of the IRS: fix the loopholes that allow groups like Crossroads and newly established Demoratic group Priorities USA to potentially overstep the limits of their tax exempt statuses, and cap political spending for 501(c)(4)s at 5 to 10 percent of an organization's expenditures in a given tax year. But will that be restrictive enough?

Granting 501(c)(4)s any degree of wiggle room at all ignores the central problem: that both parties can and will continue to use them for political activity that's unregulated by the FEC. Until the IRS builds a firm firewall between social welfare organizations and campaign fundraising outfits, expect that to continue. 

Republicans Try to Halt Obama's Immigration Authority

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 4:53 PM EDT
House sponsor of the HALT Act, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

A new immigration bill in Congress, the Hinder the Administration's Legalization Temptation (HALT) Act, which a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on yesterday, has come under fire for a variety of reasons, from its, er, unusual name to its dramatic curtailment of the executive branch's immigration prerogatives. As the Center for American Progress points out, the law would, among other things, prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from granting a waiver for the undocumented spouse of a soldier serving overseas to temporarily remain in the US. Perhaps its most radical feature, though, is its expiration date, which just happens to be January 21, 2013—the day after Inauguration Day.

Crazy coincidence? Not a chance. In a letter to congressional colleagues (PDF), the bill's sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) wrote, "Because of the Obama Administration's record, it cannot be trusted with these powers." He went on to urge, "Let's remind the Obama Administration that the founding fathers put Congress in charge of setting the nation's immigration policy."

Airlines Appear to be Only Winners in Budget Debate

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 12:53 PM EDT

The noise generated by the debt ceiling debate has largely drowned out the news that the Federal Aviation Administration was crippled last week after Congress failed to reauthorize its funding. This has put 4,000 aviation workers on furlough, halted construction projects, and even stopped the FAA from collecting airline taxes.

But the shutdown isn't hurting the airline industry. Instead of passing the savings from the missing taxes on to consumers, the airlines have decided to increase ticket prices and keep the money that would have gone to taxes for themselves—a windfall of up to $30 million a day. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

The suspended levies include a 7.5% sales tax on domestic tickets, a $3.70-per-takeoff segment fee, a $16.30 (each way) international arrival and departure tax, and an $8.20 tax for flights linking the U.S. mainland to Alaska and Hawaii. Airlines must continue to collect security fees.
Airlines including US Airways Group Inc., AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. began Friday marking up their fares, although the fares didn't appear to be higher because the totals didn't change, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of tracker FareCompare.com.
Over the weekend, more carriers joined in, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., Mr. Seaney says. By and large, they raised fares 7.5% and added charges of $6 to $12 a ticket to account for the other fees.

So in addition to charging you to print a boarding pass, charging you for both checked and carry-on items, charging you for the convenience of using a credit card, and charging you for just booking a ticket to begin with, airlines have now figured out how to profit off the budget stalemate.

Should the US Work With Al-Shabaab?

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 12:24 PM EDT
A woman, her children, and an armed policeman in central Somalia.

Should the United States coordinate with members of a known Al Qaeda-affiliated group in order to help ameliorate one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes?

That's the question the US government and other Western powers face, especially since the UN declared a famine in two southern regions of Somalia last week.

The worst drought the region has experienced in nearly 60 years has severely impacted several East African nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya, but Somalia—a failed state plagued by a decades-long civil war—is strapped with the toughest conditions, with millions in need of emergency aid.

The World Bank released this statement on Monday:

On the eve of the international emergency summit on the unfolding tragedy in the Horn of Africa, the World Bank today announced it is providing more than $500 million to assist drought victims, in addition to $12 million in immediate assistance to help those worst hit by the crisis…

"The recurring nature of drought and growing risk it poses to social and economic gains in this region calls not only for immediate relief from the current situation, but also for building long term drought resilience," said Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region.

PBS Frontline Investigates the "Pot Republic"

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 11:50 AM EDT

Last night, PBS Frontline and the Center for Investigative Reporting aired "Pot Republic," a great documentary on the marijuana business in California. It kicked off with a scene from a party at WeGrow, the so-called Walmart of Weed, and a screen shot of my cover story, "Weedmart." True to Frontline's form, the segment turned up some dirt on how medical marijuana is providing a cover for drug smugglers who resell California pot for three times its local value in places like Dallas, Texas. The Mexican cartels are also getting in on the game. At 2:30 EST today Frontline will host an online chat with "Pot Republic" correspondent Michael Montgomery, WeGrow co-founder Derek Peterson, and law enforcement officials. You can watch the Frontline segment here:

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

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Bachmann Anti-Gay Ally Sues Rachel Maddow For $50 Million (Updated)

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 11:32 AM EDT

Bradlee Dean, a longtime ally of GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, runs a heavy-metal ministry in her Minnesota district that travels to public schools on the taxpayers' dime to push students to find Christ. He has performed at fundraisers for Bachmann, and Bachmann has done the same for Dean's ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International. Long a target of local bloggers in his home state, Dean has become increasingly defensive over the last few months as national organizations have taken note of his ties to Bachmann, and he strongly hinted that he was about to push back against the criticism in a big way. And now he has. On Tuesday, Dean announced he was filing a defamation suit against MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (and the network) for $50 million.

Specifically, Dean is upset that Maddow—quoting heavily from Dean—accused him of supporting the execution of gay people. Here's his press release:

Despite the very clear disclaimer by Bradlee Dean on his ministry's website and elsewhere regarding the false accusation that he was calling for the execution of homosexuals, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and others seized on and accused Dean on her show of supporting the killing of homosexuals, as is the practice in some radical Islamic countries. This seriously has harmed Dean and the ministry, who pride themselves on respect and love for all people...

The lawsuit is filed by attorney Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch, in DC Superior Court and seeks in excess of $50 million in damages. However, money is not the issue. "This case is filed as a matter of principle," stated Klayman. "We need more Bradlee Deans in the world and hateful left wing television commentators must be made to respect not only his mission but the law," he added.

Dean and his lawyer should get along well. Klayman recently wrote an op-ed warning that the United States was being crippled by "political heterophobia" (he also noted that he had gay friends). Anyway, what set Dean off is Maddow's citation in May of this quote, from a 2010 episode of Dean's radio show:

Bachmann Vows to Ban Teleprompters From White House

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

Economists disagree on many things, but one thing you'll find a near-consensus on is the idea that President Obama's frequent use of a teleprompter is slowly destroying the American economy. Because of President Obama's frequent reliance on the teleprompter, credit agencies have warned that the United States' AAA credit rating could soon be downgraded, causing Americans' interest rates to soar. Unemployment, meanwhile, is stuck at upwards of 9 percent—again, because of President Obama's repeated use of the teleprompter.

There are few issues more critical to the nation's well-being, which is why we're happy to report that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has promised to ban teleprompters from the Whiten House if she's elected president. Via Gregory Pratt:

"I know you're not used to seeing a president without Teleprompters," she told an Iowa crowd. "But I'm just here to tell you President O'Bach — President Bachmann will not have teleprompters in the White House."

Oof. Maybe those teleprompters wouldn't be such a bad investment after all.

WATCH:

Rick Perry's Cancelled MoJo Subscription

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's big break in politics came in 1990, when he won a tight race against incumbent Jim Hightower, a progressive Democrat, to become State Agriculture Commissioner. It might not sound like much, but a statewide office is a statewide office, and Perry, who is now seriously thinking about running for president, won in a pretty rough electoral climate. (He had some help from campaign manager Karl Rove, who zeroed in on ethics lapses by a Hightower subordinate.*)

The gulf between Hightower, an organic-farming booster and later a Ralph Nader supporter, and Perry, an arch-conservative who supports criminalizing gay sex, is pretty wide. How wide? Well, in a 1991 Texas Monthly story, Dana Rubin explains that one Rick Perry's first orders of business was to cancel the agency's subscription to MoJo:

In early January, an employee armed with a video camera swept through the Austin headquarters of the Texas Department of Agriculture, making a record of every office: desks, bookshelves, computers, trash cans. Newly elected commissioner Rick Perry had ordered a top-to-bottom inventory, and his staff wanted to account for every item in the agency. Employees were asked to strip the posters, signs, and comic strips from their doors and hallways. Within days every vestige of the folksy, college dormitory atmosphere cultivated under former commissioner Jim Hightower had vanished. Gone was the rusty old plow from the lobby. Gone were the nostalgic Depression-era photographs from the walls. Gone were the agency's subscriptions to leftist periodicals such as Mother Jones, the Progressive, and the Utne Reader.

Whoa, hey! Governor, the next subscription is on us.

*Note: This section has been edited to clarify that Hightower was not personally implicated in the ethics lapses.

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

Wed Jul. 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Sgt. Normand Gagnon, team leader attached to Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team, scans the mountainside for enemy activity while on a patrol in Alingar district July 13. Laghman PRT's mission was to meet with the Alingar district leaders then perform a final inspection on two construction projects in the area. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)