Mojo - July 2011

Top House Dem Whips Votes Against Balanced Budget Amendment

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 2:30 PM PDT
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Fiscal hawks in the House of Representatives, take heart: next week, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will bring House Judiciary Committee Resolution No. 1 to a vote. The Republican-backed measure would require Congress to pass a balanced budget every year, but it also caps spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and renders it extremely difficult for either chamber to pass new spending measures.

In real terms, that would mean ghastly cuts to Medicare and Medicaid—"programs that form the heart of America’s social compact," according to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)—and complete budget paralysis. Essentially, the bill neuters Congress' ability to be prepared to any future crises, fiscal or otherwise.

So on Wednesday, Democrats fired back. Hoyer, the Democratic whip, announced plans to rally votes to defeat the measure next week, The Hill reports. That shouldn't come as a huge surprise to Republicans, who need at least 48 Democratic votes to reach the two-thirds majority in the House required to pass the bill.1

"By enshrining Republican policy priorities in the Constitution—and by making it historically difficult to raise revenue or raise the debt ceiling in order to pay our bills—the Republican amendment would impose severe hardship on millions of Americans," Hoyer said.

The balanced budget amendment might give Cantor and Boehner much-needed political insulation if they end up caving on tax increases in a deal to increase the debt ceiling. But given the tea party's impressive vindictive streak, I wouldn't bet on it.


1: Why two-thirds? Because of a procedure known as suspension of rules. Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House or his chosen designee can make a motion to "suspend the rules," limiting debate to 40 minutes and preventing any amendments from being offered to a piece of legislation. Usually, a suspension motion is written to both suspend the rules and pass the bill under consideration—meaning that once the motion passes, the bill is considered to have passed the House as well. To win passage, the motion must receive affirmative votes from two-thirds of the members present and voting.

But a suspension of the rules is usually invoked only on non-controversial legislation that enjoys broad bipartisan support. Which, it seems safe to say, the balanced budget amendment is not.

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TSA Blasted for Checked Baggage Scans, Security Breaches

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 11:39 AM PDT

This week will be a tough one for TSA's public relations team due to two new findings. One, a GAO report, highlights the TSA's failure to conduct risk assessments for 87% of US airports and the uncertain record of the agency's behavior detection program. The other report, released by the Department of Homeland Security, revealed that there were 25,000 breaches of TSA security since 2001, including weapons brought on planes. Both were the subject of a heated hearing yesterday by the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who's chastised the TSA in the past, once again voiced his lack of confidence in the organization in light of the 25,000 security breaches. "These are just the ones we know about," Chaffetz said, "it's a stunningly high number." Chaffetz characterized TSA's services as ineffective "security theater." "We have to be right all the time," he said, "terrorists only have to get lucky once."

Chaffetz is right to be concerned about security, as the GAO's report says that TSA isn't even close to meeting current standards for detecting explosives in checked luggage. It took TSA four years to begin meeting 2005 requirements, and it looks like meeting current standards will be delayed similarly, if they're ever instituted. "We found that TSA did not have a plan to deploy and operate electronic detection systems to meet the most recent requirements," the report says [emphasis mine]. "As of January 2011, some of the electronic detection systems in TSA's fleet are detecting explosives at the level established by the 2005 requirements," and some were operating at the 1998 level of detection.

While TSA's checked baggage scanning is still far behind, TSA is using a program to detect potential terrorists based on their body language. The program, Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), has been lauded by Department of Homeland Security as being more effective than random screenings, but GAO isn't buying it. The GAO says that DHS's data collection wasn't good enough to verify a link between a certain behaviors and terrorist activity. And anyway, "it is not known if the SPOT program has ever resulted in the arrest of anyone who is a terrorist, or who was planning to engage in terrorist-related activity." This is really unfortunate, as last year DHS spent $212 million on the program and employed 3000 behavior-detection officers. This year, DHS wants an additional $20 million so it can employ 350 more officers. That seems like a lot of money and employees for a program that doesn't actually work. GAO notes that it would have been a good idea if DHS scientifically assessed the program's potential effectiveness before it was rolled out in 161 airports across the country.

Here's a chart I made of the SPOT program's results for FY2010. You'll notice that "terrorism" is not one of the reasons people were charged.


 

Bachmann Summit With Anti-Gay Heavy-Metal Minister Cancelled

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 7:02 AM PDT

One of Rep. Michele Bachmann's more controversial associations is her relationship with Bradlee Dean, a heavy-metal drummer who runs an anti-gay ministry in her district called You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International. As we reported in May, Dean has stated unequivocally that homosexuality is illegal. Not that it should be illegal, but that it is currently a crime, and that gays are legally barred from holding public office. (News of the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas travels slowly.) Dean also believes that gay marriage is part of secret Muslim plot to impose Islamic Sharia law on the general populace, and that President Obama has cut the nation loose from its Constitutional moorings. This despite the fact that Dean was until recently a member of a sovereign citizen organization that requires supporters to renounce their American citizenship. Bachmann has raised money for Dean's organization and prayed for the group to turn Minnesota into a "burning incense." "Thank you now for this time," she said, "and pour a double blessing, Lord, a triple blessing onto this ministry."

The fact that Bachmann was scheduled to appear alongside Dean at the "Tea Party Jamboree" in Kansas City, Kansas, in September was, all things considered, kind of a big deal. The event's lineup was problematic as well: Jerome Corsi, author of the birther manifesto Where's the Birth Certificate?, was scheduled to attend, as was his boss at WorldNetDaily, Joseph Farah. With Bachmann, guided by chief strategist Ed Rollins, attempting to rebrand herself as a kinder, gentler conservative candidate, would she stay the course? Now, Andy Birkey reports, she won't have to make that choice; the entire event has been called off:

Organizers for the Freedom Jamboree, billed as the national tea party straw poll convention, announced on Wednesday that the event has been canceled due to low attendance. The conference had pulled in two of Minnesota most controversial figures, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and rightwing preacher Bradlee Dean. It was also being organized by Iowa's Bob Vander Plaats, whose organization, The Family Leader, sparked an uproar in the state after it released a presidential pledge on marriage.

So Bachmann dodged a bullet. Meanwhile, this isn't going to do anything to quell suggestions that Vander Plaats, whose marriage pledge has been rebuked by GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and fellow contender Tim Pawlenty, has lost his mojo.

Are Anti-Abortion Groups Trying to Keep Women Away From the Polls?

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 4:27 AM PDT

Wisconsin held a special election on Tuesday, the first round of voting in the recall elections spurred by this spring's union battle in the state. But some voters in Wisconsin received an automated "robocall" from Wisconsin Right to Life on Monday—the day before the election—informing them that they would be receiving an absentee ballot application for the upcoming recall elections in the "next few days" and urging them to use that form to vote by mail.

A source working on the special election provided Mother Jones with a recording of the voicemail, which the source believes was designed to confuse voters and keep them from the polls on Tuesday. Here's the transcript of the message:

Hello, this is Barbara Lyons from Wisconsin Right to Life. I'm calling today to let you know that you will be receiving an absentee ballot application for the upcoming recall elections in the mail in the next few days. These recall elections are very important and voting absentee will ensure that your vote is counted and that we can maintain a pro-family, pro-life state senate. We hope that we can count on you to complete that application and send it back to us within 7 days. Thank you for your support. Wisconsin Right to Life can be reached by calling (877) 855-5007.

Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the democracy program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, stopped short of deeming the robocall an attempt at voter suppression. But it's clear the call's script had the potential to confuse and mislead voters, Norden said. "To me it reads confusing enough that it could lead people to believe that they didn't have to vote on Tuesday and that they could be getting something in the mail to vote absentee," he argued. "It's troubling that a confusing message like this would go out the day before an election."

Lyons, the executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, insisted in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it was "absurd" to claim that the calls were intended to deter voters from going to the polls. "As best as we know," Lyons added, the calls targeted her group's supporters. (If so, Wisconsin Right to Life's phone-banking list is far from perfect—the source who provided the recording to Mother Jones does not support the group.) On Wednesday, Lyons also penned a blog post about the robocall, calling the allegations of voter suppression "false and vicious."

Jen Bluestein, the communications director for the national pro-choice electoral organization EMILY's List, argued the calls could be part of a "new and desperate tactic" to keep advocates of reproductive rights from heading to the polls. Bluestein pointed to ads the National Republican Trust political action committee ran in California last week criticizing Democrat Janice Hahn (who won on Tuesday) as "divisive" for citing the Republican candidate's anti-abortion record. The executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC told Politico that the point of the ad was to get pro-choice voters to "stay home."

"They are so desperate to deny women care wherever they can, they're targeting women and lying to them to prevent them from voting, because they know their radical candidates can't win if Democratic women come to the polls," Bluestein said.

Whatever the real intention of the Wisconsin ads, they should probably raise some red flags, says NYU's Norden. "Certainly if it wasn't intended as a voter suppression method, then Wisconsin Right to Life should review both its methods and is practices and refrain from doing something like this in the future," he said.

UPDATE: Tova Wang, a senior democracy fellow with the group Demos, also weighed in via email, declaring the robocalls "extraordinarily fishy," at best. "Robocalls like this have become a main feature of the vote suppression industry for the last couple of election cycles, which makes me more suspicious," said Wang. "A political consulting firm in Maryland is being sued by the attorney general for doing something very similar in last year's gubernatorial election. I hope the Wisconsin authorities investigate this."

Balance the Budget Yourself!

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 3:57 AM PDT

Ever wanted to know what it would be like to craft fiscal policy, allocate billions in tax revenue, or balance your very own federal budget?

On Wednesday, American Public Media's Public Insight Network (PIN) launched a newly updated version of their "Budget Hero" game, which allows participants to envision their ideal federal budget. The game, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, begins "10 years from now to show what would happen if current [economic] policy were to continue on, unchanged."

Players start by selecting "badges" most compatible with their political views, ranging from "Tea Party" to "Energy Independence."

Click on the icon below to launch the widget in a pop-up window:

Minnesota Shutdown Claims Booze and (Maybe) Cigarettes

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 3:23 AM PDT

First they came for Minnesota's state parks, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a tree-hugger. Then they came for the DMVs and interstate highways, and I didn't speak up because I didn't own a car. And then they came for my beer and cigarettes....

Or so the poem might read if the great Minnesota government shutdown doesn't abate.

In a development that is sure to harsh the mellow of every barfly and club-hopper in Minnesota, the state's government shutdown will soon prevent restaurants, taverns, and distributors from renewing the liquor purchasing cards that allow them to replenish their inventories. The Star Tribune reports:

Of the roughly 10,000 establishments that sell liquor in Minnesota, most of those who needed to renew their buyer purchasing cards managed to do so before the July 1 shutdown started. About 300 were caught with cards that expired on June 30 and no way to renew the permits.

That number will grow to 425 by the end of the month, according to state officials, and grow as more cards expire at random intervals.

MillerCoors will soon have to yank nearly 40 brands of beer from bar and store coolers statewide because it can't get its brand label registration renewed, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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Investigate Murdoch's News Corp.? Nah.

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

On Wednesday, the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) upped the ante in the ongoing furor over Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the widening British phone-hacking scandal. Democratic members of Congress, including West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, have called on various federal agencies to investigate allegations that reporters working for News Corp.'s News of the World may have hacked the voicemail of 9/11 victims and also attempted to bribe a New York City police officer for their phone records. But CREW has suggested that Congress itself should take up the cause and launch hearings on the brewing scandal. CREW’s executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement:

While it is encouraging that Sen. Rockefeller shares CREW’s concern about whether American 9/11 victims had their voicemails hacked, there is no need to cede all investigative authority to the executive branch. Just as the British Parliament has held hearings and heard the testimony of witnesses, Congress has the ability to subpoena News Corp. employees and require them to explain themselves. The idea that News Corp. may have sought to exploit the victims of one of the darkest days in US history for financial gain is grotesque. Even in these hyper-partisan days, Congress should be able to put the privacy of terrorist victims and their families above politics. Mr. Murdoch and his acolytes must be held accountable here as well as in Great Britain.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 14, 2011

Thu Jul. 14, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Afghan soldiers and their U.S. counterparts march toward Gerekheyl village during an early morning patrol in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on June 14, 2011. The soldiers are with Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. DoD photo by Spc. Tia Sokimson, U.S. Army.

Progressive Groups: Balanced Budget Amendment is a Terrible Idea

| Wed Jul. 13, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

On Wednesday, 247 national progressive and good government organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Democracy 21, National Coalition for LGBT Health, and OMB Watch, co-signed a letter opposing House Judiciary Committee Resolution 1—better known as the balanced budget amendment. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the measure next week.

The bill would cap government spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). That would slash spending much deeper than Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) Medicare-privatizing, Medicaid-gutting, rich people-coddling budget plan, which holds spending between 20 and 21 percent of GDP over most of the next two decades (currently, spending is around 24 percent of GDP).

The proposal also makes it exceedingly difficult for Congress to undo the budget damage inflicted by the cap: it requires a supermajority in both houses to break the cap, increase the debt limit, raise taxes, or close loopholes, strangling the government's ability to increase spending on social programs, health care, or unemployment benefits. Effectively, the bill would shackle Congress to a foolish piece of legislation that could torpedo the economy and send it spiraling into another recession.

From the letter:

This irresponsible requirement would create an extremely steep hurdle to raising any revenues—effectively blocking revenue measures even as part of packages to restore long-term solvency to Social Security and Medicare—while protecting the more than $1 trillion a year in "tax expenditures" and forcing severe program cuts.

In short, this amendment is a recipe for making recessions more frequent, longer, and deeper, while requiring severe cuts that would harshly affect seniors, children, veterans, people with disabilities, homeland security activities, public safety, environmental protection, education and medical research. It would almost certainly necessitate massive cuts to vital programs including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits and other programs, and, as noted, lead to even deeper cuts than the House passed budget.

But even if the balanced budget amendment makes it out of the House, it's virtually dead-on-arrival when it lands in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

So why are John Boehner and Eric Cantor wasting time lobbying for a measure that's almost certain to fail? Because skeptical tea partiers are just waiting to pounce on them for signing off on a deal that raises the debt ceiling and cuts the deficit but also increases taxes. If higher taxes or closed tax loopholes end up in whicever debt deal emerges, at least the Republican leadership can look to the right wing elements of their party, point to the amendment, and say "Hey, look: we tried." In other words: it's mostly intra-party politics.

Pawlenty Rejects Family Leader Pledge

| Wed Jul. 13, 2011 11:32 AM PDT

If the Iowa conservative group "The Family Leader" succeeded at one thing by issuing its "Marriage Vow," it was in making life a little more difficult for GOP presidential contenders. By the sheer virtue of the vow's existence, candidates were compelled to either sign or not sign—and on Wednesday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty officially became part of the latter category.

In a statement, Pawlenty said he "respectfully" declined to sign the pledge because he would "prefer to choose [his] own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own." He made no mention of the controversial portions of the pledge comparing gay marriage to polygamy, banning Sharia law, and rejecting pornography. (By the time Pawlenty made his announcement, the Family Leader had already dropped a line from the pledge suggesting black families were perhaps better off during slavery.)

In rejecting the pledge, Pawlenty joins former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who said Tuesday he would not sign the vow because it contains "references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign."

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Rick Santorum signed the marriage pledge soon after it was released. But Romney and Pawlenty both decided to wait out the initial media coverage before choosing to abstain. The delay highlights the awkward situation the pledge created for the two ex-governors. They both want to win the GOP presidential primary. That requires a certain amount of pandering to the far right. But they also want to win the presidency, and they realize that the more controversial aspects of the pledge aren't going to help them on that front. Then again, neither of them actually wants to identify which parts of the pledge they think were problematic for fear of further alienating the parts of the base that agree with those parts of the vow. How awkward!