Mojo - July 2011

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

Tue Jul. 19, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

A small boy waves an American flag as 1st Infantry Division Soldiers march by during the Sundown Salute Parade in Junction City, Kan., July 4. Sundown Salute is the largest free Independence Day celebration in the state of Kansas. (U.S. Army photo by Mollie Miller, 1st Inf. Div. Public Affairs)

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Consumer Protection Bureau: What We've Done So Far

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 11:00 AM PDT
Elizabeth Warren.

On Thursday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will officially open for business, finally giving American consumers a standalone ally in the byzantine financial services industry. But since the bureau's creation by the Dodd-Frank Act last summer, the CFPB has actually been working to help consumers for nearly a year.

A report released by the CFPB (PDF) on Monday outlines the bureau's progress under Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who conceived of the bureau and was charged with getting it up and running. Warren wasn't nominated to serve as the bureau's permanent director—on Sunday President Obama tapped former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, who runs the CFPB's enforcement division, for the position—but the bureau has her fingerprints all over it.

Under Warren, the CFPB has grown to 500 staffers from all corners of the financial world—banks, the Fed, academia, and so on. The CFPB has also opened its doors to supporters, critics, and constituents alike, meeting with community bankers from 50 states as well as a host of advocates, trade groups, and the top brass in the banking industry. The bureau has also cut agreements with other federal agencies to streamline the regulation process and better marshal its clout to help consumers. Here's a snapshot of the bureau's accomplishments so far:

Know Before You Owe Project: The CFPB has begun implementing a process for combining the complex and duplicative Truth in Lending Act and Good Faith Estimate mortgage disclosure forms into a single, useable form. By sharing early drafts of the new form with the public and integrating comments and insights into subsequent versions, we will begin the formal rule-writing process with the most effective form possible.

CARD Act Conference: In February, the CFPB hosted a conference on the one-year anniversary of the implementation of key provisions of the CARD Act. The conference was held to develop data about the impact of the new law and to initiate a candid conversation with industry participants about credit card markets.

21st-Century Technology: As the country’s first 21st-century consumer protection agency, the CFPB is reaching out to the public using 21st-century tools. This effort began with the unveiling of the Bureau’s website, ConsumerFinance.gov, the “Open for Suggestions” campaign, a Facebook page, a Twitter stream, Flickr and YouTube channels, and the launch of an easy-to-use jobs page for prospective employees.

Nonbank Supervision: Before the CFPB can supervise certain types of nonbank providers of consumer financial products or services, it is required by law to define who is a “larger participant” in certain markets. The agency has engaged the public early in the process, prior to initiating formal rule-writing, to build a strong foundation that takes into account a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

The CFPB's launch on Thursday won't be without problems—the Senate has yet to confirm a director to run the bureau. By not picking Warren, the president signaled that he didn't want to pick a fight with the GOP on this issue. But Senate Republicans have said they will block Cordray anyway—at least until the bureau's leadership is weakened from a single director to an SEC-style commission. That means the bureau will open without a leader and will likely be without one for the near future.

Sarah Palin's Mystery Research Shop Cashes In

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 7:20 AM PDT

Is Sarah Palin still boning up on the European debt crisis? The latest federal filings for her political action committee, Sarah PAC, show that an incendiary, right-wing Dutch journalist who was giving her pointers on the matter is still on the payroll.

In the first half of 2011, Sarah PAC paid $24,000 to Paideia Research LLC, a consulting outfit run by Joshua Livestro. Once a frequent contributor to Conservatives4Palin, a website co-founded by Palin aide Rebecca Mansour, Livestro was originally hired by Palin's team to brief Palin on Europe's financial crisis.

Of course, Livestro's name isn't anywhere to be found in Sarah PAC's filings. Last year, it took quite a bit of digging by Daniel Schulman and myself to connect Livestro to Paideia:

Two recent federal filings for SarahPAC list a Sheridan, Wyoming, address for Paideia Research. When one local blogger visited the address, he found a low-slung, non-descript building that's home to Sheridan Answering and Secretarial Services, a company that handles phone calls and mail for customers. (Other bloggers soon started asking questions about Palin's mystery research firm.) When asked by Mother Jones about Paideia, Sheridan Answering's owner, Ginger Horton, replied, "I have no idea who they are."

Wyoming business records show that Paideia was incorporated in July. In addition to the local Wyoming address, these records list another in southern California. That address, in turn, traces to another mail forwarding service. Paideia's corporate filings also indicate that it is managed by Pyramid Management LLC, which belongs to a California-based ex-lawyer and realtor, David DeLoach, who specializes in setting up untraceable LLCs and pre-fab shell companies in Wyoming and Nevada—states that don't tax corporate income and have exceedingly lax disclosure rules.

In a brief phone interview, DeLoach said he vaguely remembered setting up Paideia. But as his website promises, the entire process was confidential. He said he himself didn't know who was behind Paideia or why it was created.

So it appears the owner of Paideia truly wanted to keep its origins secret. And he might have succeeded, had Karen Wheeler, the Wyoming Secretary of State's business compliance director, not told Mother Jones that she had recently spoken to Paideia's owner by phone. She didn't get his name, but said he "had quite the English accent" and told her he was based in England.

That England-based mystery man turned out to be Livestro, who cut his teeth in Dutch politics and founded the Edmund Burke Foundation, a think tank devoted to countering Dutch progressive politics. He also had a knack for sparking controversy: In a Dutch magazine, Livestro once dismissed the abuses at Abu Ghraib as no worse than those that might occur within a fraternity, and he called critics of that prison "cry-babies." Oh, and he's also a climate change denier.

Even before Sarah PAC hired him, Livestro was an avid fan of the former Alaska governor. He defended her against criticisms from around the blogosphere on the site Conservatives4Palin, a hub of pro-Palin commentary. And then there's the bio on Livestro's website, which reads: "His greatest wish is to work for the 2012 Sarah Palin presidential campaign."

Rick Perry's Budget-Busting Past

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 6:47 AM PDT

If Rick Perry runs for president—as looks increasingly likely—it'll be on a platform of small-government fiscal conservatism. As Texas' Governor-for-life (10 years and counting) he's reined in out-of-control government spending and made the Lone Star State an economic oasis through his business-friendly tax code. That's Perry's argument, anyway, but there are just a few holes. For one, there's the fact that as governor, Perry created a structural deficit—that is, Texas is guaranteed a $10 billion deficit at the start of every two-year legislative session because his administration miscalculated the amount of revenue Perry's new franchise tax would bring in. He's also been less than heroic in how he's gone about closing those deficits. Last month, Perry and his allies closed the state's $27 billion deficit through, as the AP put it, "accounting maneuvers, rewriting school funding laws, ignoring a growing population and delaying payments on bills coming due in 2013." You know, tough choices.

But at least Perry has cut spending. Well, except, now the Star-Telegram reports that he exactly hasn't done that either:

Perry has long promoted the state's fiscal record as a model for the country and a key to why Texas has weathered the recession better than most other states. He has opposed new taxes and been vehemently anti-Washington, and his message is drawing interest among Republican primary voters nationwide.

Yet before the latest one, the Texas budget had consistently grown during Perry's time as governor, with total spending rising faster than inflation and population growth, state data show.

What's more, spending through 2011, adjusted for population and inflation, rose more on average while Perry has been in charge than it did under his predecessor, George W. Bush, according to a Star-Telegram analysis.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Given the kinds of services Perry has cut, you could make a pretty good case that he should have pushed for much larger budgets. And as the story notes, the budget increase mostly comes from federal funding—like the stimulus—rather than state-specific policies (which have decreased). But that's a far more nuanced picture than the anti-Washington, anti-spending small-government ideology he trumpets.

Doctors Without Borders to CIA: Not Cool, Guys

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 3:15 AM PDT
Doctors Without Borders

Not everybody thought the vaccination scheme the CIA reportedly used to confirm Osama bin Laden's whereabouts was as badass as we did.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency took the news of the DNA-collecting operation as a sign that it needed to imprison more of Pakistan's citizens, and the Daily Beast's Kent Sepkowitz was among those who wondered if "the plot also likely will confirm people's worst fears about our conniving double-dealing government."

But it was Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), aka Doctors Without Borders, that had perhaps the most critical response. The NGO expressed serious concerns about the blowback that could result from the intelligence agency's creative tactic, particularly regarding its potential effect on the already shaky relationship between humanitarian medical teams and impoverished populations. McClatchy has the story:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 18, 2011

Mon Jul. 18, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Pfc. John Mumpower, scout observer, C/38th (ABN) Long Range Surveillance Company, 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, pulls security with his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon during a training event at Yakima Training Center, June 25. Mumpower, a Wingate, N.C. native, watches for enemy forces while a two-man team searches the area for any information to send back. Photo by Spc. Hannah Frenchick, 20th Public Affairs Detachment

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Elizabeth Warren: Passed Over for CFPB Post, But...

| Sun Jul. 17, 2011 6:24 PM PDT

The Sunday afternoon news that the White House would not be nominating Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) certainly has the potential to trigger outrage from progressives who believe President Barack Obama too often declines to confront Republican extremism. Warren, the populist Harvard professor who birthed the idea for a government agency that would protect consumers from tricks and traps perpetrated by banks, mortgage firms, and credit card companies, was the right person for the job. So much so that congressional Republicans have been howling about the prospect of her leading the agency even before the bureau was created last year by the Wall Street reform legislation. Which is why Obama's decision not to fight for her—and it would have been a titanic fight—may disappoint. But there's an upside to the move: the possibility that Warren will end up in the US Senate. And there's this: The fellow Obama picked for the position, Richard Cordray, can be expected to do a fine job pursuing abusive financial firms.

Cordray was recruited for his current position of chief of enforcement by Warren, who last year was asked by the administration to set up the agency. Naturally, Warren is a fan of Cordray, a former attorney general of Ohio. In a statement released on Sunday, Warren said, "Rich has a proven track record of fighting for families during his time as head of the CFPB enforcement division, as Attorney General of Ohio, and throughout his career. He was one of the first senior executives I recruited for the agency, and his hard work and deep commitment make it clear that he can make many important contributions in leading this agency. He will make a stellar director." The AFL-CIO noted that it was "disappointed" that Obama did not select Warren, but it declared its strong support for Cordray, based on his "outstanding record of protecting the public interest." ProgressOhio, a progressive outfit, said, "Ohioans who have long known Rich Cordray understand the integrity, intelligence and fairness he will bring to the office." A longtime consumer advocate told me that Cordray is a "great" pick.

Romney State PACs in Hot Water

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 2:20 PM PDT
Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, is running for president. The FEC needs to figure out how long he's been doing that.

If the Federal Election Commission manages to rise the challenge, Mitt Romney's campaign could be forced to answer some tough questions about its fundraising strategy.

On Thursday, the Alabama Democratic Party joined a complaint against Romney filed with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the former Massachusetts governor sidestepped campaign fundraising rules to funnel $1.5 million from his state-level political actions committees to Free and Strong America, his national PAC.

Federal campaign limits cap donations to national PACs at $5,000. But Alabama (and a couple other states) allow donors to give unlimited amounts of money to state PACs, allowing shrewd fundraisers like Romney to skirt federal limits while raking in massive contributions.

As my colleague Andy Kroll explained this week, national candidates often use money raised by their state-level PACs to court potential allies in key primary states. Romney's PACs, for example, distributed some $400,000 in campaign contributions in 25 different states in 2009 and 2010, including $62,000 to now-Govenrors Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) and $30,000 to Terry Branstad (R-Iowa), both of whom won their races. Romney's largesse, along with Haley and Branstad's victories, gave him a pair of powerful potential backers leading into next year's presidential race.

Harnessing state PACs in this way falls in line with Federal Election Commission rules. Shifting money from state PACS to a national PAC is kosher, as long as the candidate in question—Romney—hasn't already announced his intention to run for president. If a candidate wants to run for national office, he first has to cut ties with his state-level PACs.

But the complaint, originally filed by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, alleges that Romney failed to cut those ties before forming his exploratory committee. In essence, the complaint claims, Romney used his state PACs as "shell operations" to fund a possible presidential campaign before officially declaring his candidacy—a potential breach of FEC rules, according to The Washington Post.

"Romney has engaged in the evident subterfuge of using state laws not for the state election-related purposes for which they were enacted, but to advance his Federal candidacy with the aid of 'soft money,'" the complaint says. "He has misled the authorities of those states, filing reports of 'state' activities which were never bona fide state activities in the first instance."

Romney's campaign, meanwhile, claims that he hasn't been affiliated with his state PACs since launching his exploratory campaign.

Campaign finance experts told the Post that the FEC isnt likely to find a violation of this rule until a candidate has made a "clear and unambiguous statement that they are running for a specific federal office." The FEC—which hasn't exactly been the most vigilant campaign law enforcer in recent years—is charged with the tricky task of determining when, exactly, Romney first threw his hat in the presidential ring. Given the fact that he basically never stopped running for president after losing out on the Republican nomination in 2008, that won't be easy.  

Soylent Greenbacks: David Brooks Wants People to Die for Debt Reduction

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 12:47 PM PDT
He looks delicious.

To help solve the debt crisis, the best thing I can do is die. Maybe not right now, but certainly before I put too much strain on the public purse—and since I'm 74, that means pretty soon. If I should be lucky enough to contract a fatal disease, I can do the right thing by eschewing expensive medical care that might extend my life. If that doesn’t happen, and I enter a slow and costly decline, then in the interests of the greater good I should take the Hemingway solution.

That's pretty much the message of David Brooks' column in today’s New York Times. "This fiscal crisis is about many things," he writes, "but one of them is our  inability to face death—our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months."

Here's how Brooks comes by his position: To begin with, he says: "The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs." Never mind two futile wars and 10 years of tax relief for millionaires.

Furthermore, he argues, the reason for these soaring costs is that very old and very sick people insist on clinging on to their miserable lives, when they ought to be civic-minded enough to kick off. It's not the insurance companies, which reap huge profits by serving as useless, greed-driven middlemen. It's not the drug companies, which are making out like bandits with virtually no government regulation. It's not the whole corrupt, overpriced system of medicine for profit, which delivers the 37th best health care in the world, according to the WHO, at more than twice the cost of the best (France). No. It's all about us greedy geezers. We're the ones who are placing an untenable burden on the younger, heartier citizenry, with our selfish desire to live a little longer.

Highlights from Court Decision on TSA Scanners

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 11:56 AM PDT

Today the DC Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) that the TSA's whole-body scanners are not unconstitutional. For years, advocates like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have been arguing and filing suits that the scanners violate passenger privacy. But according to the court, it's just not so. However, the court did find that the TSA violated a law by rolling out the scanners as a primary screening method without first soliciting and considering public comments.

Here are the highlights of the decision, including some colorful language from author Judge Douglas Ginsburg.

TSA: We shouldn't be required to have a public comment period because instituting the scanners doesn't impose a "substantial impact."

Court: Uh, yeah you should. "It is clear that by producing an image of the unclothed passenger, an AIT [body] scanner intrudes on his or her personal privacy in a way that a magnetometer does not... Indeed, few if any regulatory procedures impose directly and significantly upon so many members of the public." TSA can continue operating the scanners for now, but must institute notice-and-comment rulemaking as required by the Administrative Procedure Act "promptly."

 

EPIC: The scanners violate the Fourth Amendment's law against unreasonable search and seizure.

Court: Nope. These searches are administrative, seeking to protect the public rather than to determine if a crime was committed. TSA has addressed privacy by "distorting the image created using AIT and deleting it as soon as the passenger has been cleared." Citizens have a right to waive the scanning and get manually screened, although some passengers "have complained that the resulting pat-down was unnecessarily aggressive."

 

TSA: You should dismiss EPIC's argument that the scanners violate the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act because they should have brought that issue to us, not the court.

Court: No. And maybe EPIC would have brought these issues to the TSA if there was "an agency 'proceeding' where the party could advance its argument in the first instance, the absence of which is the very matter at issue here."

 

EPIC: But these porno-scanners are violating the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act!

Court: No they aren't. And the argument that the TSA doesn't engage in law enforcement, correctional, or intelligence activity "borders on the silly." Dismissed.

 

TSA: Since we don't have whole-body scanners at every airport, and we could stop using them, our roll-out of them isn't really a binding rule.

Court: "More clearly significant is that a passenger is bound to comply with whatever screening procedure the TSA is using on the date he is to fly." To argue otherwise is "absurd."

 

It's not really certain to me what a public comment period would achieve. Sure, according to the law, the TSA is supposed to consider the public's comments and integrate them into the law-making procedure. But as the hundreds of scathing comments on nearly every post on the TSA's official blog will show, people are pissed off. The TSA has pretty much ignored the pissed-off-ness of customers so far, and even the pissed-off-ness of the local aviation directors they work with. Call me cynical, but I just don't see a 90-day public comment period really making a substantial difference in the way TSA processes passengers. TSA is the honey badger of government agencies: they really just don't give a care.