Mojo - August 2011

Big Labor Eyes the Super PAC Playing Field

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 10:30 AM EDT
AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka with President Obama.

The AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in America, is considering launching its own "super PAC." The move would allow the labor group to rake in unlimited amounts of campaign cash from inside and outside its affiliated unions to spend in state and federal elections. If the new political action committee gets the final stamp of approval, the Associated Press reports, it would join more than 100 super PACs already raising and spending money to influence the 2012 elections.

The explosion of super PACs onto the political scene came after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations and labor unions. Here's more from the AP on the AFL-CIO's plan to potentially capitalize on that decision:

The move would also help steer more of labor's money to state legislative battles, where unions have been battling efforts to curb union rights in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

"The essential idea is that changes in the law for the first time really allow the labor movement to speak directly to workers, whether they have collective bargaining agreements or not," AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said in an interview. "Before, most political resources went to our own membership."

Labor leaders discussed the plan at the AFL-CIO executive council meetings earlier this month, but officials said the idea remains subject to final approval over the next few weeks.

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Bracing For the Great Mississippi Valley Earthquake

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 9:41 AM EDT

With many DC residents still cowering nervously under our desks after yesterday's earthquake, Dave Weigel flags a rather regrettable tweet from Sen. John McCain from 2009. (Regrettable Tweets from John McCain is good Tumblr idea, come to think of it.) McCain has a habit of going on Twitter sprees, in which he rattles off a long list of earmarks that he considers to be prima facie ludicrous. Like this one:

The punchline is that this is a terrible waste of money because everyone knows Memphis doesn't even have earthquakes.

But actually, the punchline here is John McCain, who is blissfully ignorant of the fact that Memphis, Tennessee actually does sit on top of a major fault line, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. There haven't been any major earthquakes on the New Madrid fault since the winter of 1811–1812 (when there were four), but FEMA believes that a serious earthquake in Memphis "is likely to constitute the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," due to the impact it would have on interstate commerce, agriculture, and property damage. It would displace about up to 7 million people and could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. A FEMA-commissioned study, meanwhile, showed that the likelihood of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake occuring along the New Madrid fault in the next 50 years was 90 percent. There are also 15 nuclear power plants within the New Madrid Seismic Zone. If a major earthquake were to happen there, it would go "way beyond Katrina" in terms of devastation, as one senior Department of Defense official put it, according to Wired.

As it happens, there's a debate within the seismological community about just how much of a threat there is of an earthquake in the Midwest. A Northwestern University professor I spoke with in April believes that the fault may have shut off, in which case spending money on earthquake readiness would be a bad investment. What's at stake? Billions of dollars in long-term costs (shoring up all federal buildings, for instance) as well as harder-to-calculate economic costs to communities along the fault. Folks in Paducah, Kentucky say the threat of a major earthquake there has made it harder to lure new businesses. With so much hinging on the science, investing in research right now may actually be a very cost-effective approach.

The larger issue here is that McCain and plenty of other lawmakers have sought to make the case that earmarks are by definition wasteful, as part of their crusade against government spending. But earmarks have about the same degree of usefulness as any other form of non-earmarked funding. In reality, it's not the earmarks themselves that McCain should be concerned with; it's the process by which they're allocated.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 24, 2011

Wed Aug. 24, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

A soldier from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, unloads his Stryker armored fighting vehicle after a long day of conducting fire missions at the National Training Center Aug. 12. Photo by Army Spc. Ryan Hallock.

 

Even Teen Birth Rates Are Bigger in Texas

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

Via Feministing, here's a priceless video of Texas Gov. Rick Perry trying to explain that you should ignore his state's high rates of teen pregnancy and just trust him that his abstinence-only sex education policy works. The clip is from a sit-down that Perry did with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune in October 2010, before he threw his hat in the ring for the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

Smith asks why the governor continues to promote policies that simply tell kids not to have sex when the state has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the US. The state actually appears to rank fourth in teen pregnancies, but third in teen birth rates. It's pretty bad either way.

First Perry insists that, "Abstinence works," despite being presented with evidence to the contrary. Then he argues that maybe the problem is "the way it's being taught or the way it's being applied out there," or that educators simply aren't "impressing it upon them" hard enough. Then he notes that in his own personal experience, abstinence has worked. Here's the video:

Tea Party Leaders Write Book

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

Looks like Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, the leaders of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the nation's largest tea party groups, have a book in the works. Rumors have been flying for a while that the duo cashed in on their tea party status to win a lucrative book contract. Now it's clear the part about the book deal, at least, is true (there's no word yet on how lucrative it is). Tea Party Patriots: The Rise of Open Source Politics and the Second American Revolution, which is due out in January, promises to be the "definitive history of one of the most radical, revolutionary movements the country has ever seen, from those who started it all." From the blurb:

In 2009, an unemployed mother of two and a politically inexperienced northern California attorney met on a conference call that would end up starting one of the largest grassroots political organizations in American history, the Tea Party Patriots. Fueled by the fires of passion and patriotism, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin have become the faces of the most powerful political movement in the country, empowering their more than twenty million members by using both high-tech advances and the time-tested American tradition of rallying in public. Promoting the basic principles of the Tea Party Movement—free market, limited government, and fiscal responsibilty—the Tea Party Patriots have become the largest tea party organization in the world. With unparalleled access to the inner workings of the movement, Meckler and Martin hope to explain how the Tea Party came to be, what it is and is not, and perhaps most important, provide the first comprehensive, forward-looking document outlining a plan to restore America to its prior greatness.

Never before has there been such an audience for this material. Americans of all political stripes have been waiting for a thorough and informative account of this movement. Straight from the co-founders themselves, Tea Party Patriots promises to be the definitive source for a political revolution.

The book's Amazon listing doesn't mention whether Meckler will be including a discussion of his years with Herbalife, a company described by government regulators as a pyramid scheme, or mention how he grafted many of Herbalife's "direct marketing" tactics on to an organization many local tea party activists have disavowed thanks to its litigiousness and secretive operations. We can only hope, though, that the Tea Party Patriots' rich friends will loan Meckler and Martin another private jet for their book tour so we can post more videos like this one:

Poll: Bachmann Peaked at Ames, Birthers Not Going Away

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 10:55 AM EDT
Despite her Iowa roots, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is on pace for a third-place finish in the Hawkeye State.

Public Policy Polling is out with a new survey of Iowa Republicans that's good news for Texas Governor Rick Perry, bad news for Rep. Michele Bachmann, and just really depressing news for the rest of us. The main takeaway is that PPP sees Bachmann's support in the critical first-in-the-nation caucus state slipping precipitously since she won the Ames Straw Poll earlier this month. Bachmann's Ames victory came on the same day Perry entered the race, and since then, Perry seems to have picked up much of her support. The two are widely seen as competing for the same pot of socially conservative voters, but in a head-to-head contest between the two of them, Perry crushes Bachmann, 51 percent to 27 percent, with 22 percent undecided. From PPP's Tom Jensen:

It's clear that Bachmann has gotten virtually no momentum out of her victory in the Ames Straw Poll. She was in 3rd place when we polled Iowa in June and she's in third place now. Beyond that her favorability numbers in the state have taken a significant hit. In June she had a 53/16 breakdown. Since then her positive number has dropped 6 points from 53% to 47%, and her negative number has climbed 19 points from 16% to 35%.

Courtesy of Public Policy PollingCourtesy of Public Policy Polling

The news is just bad for supporters of fact-based reality. Although the number of admitted birthers plunged nationally following the death of Osama bin Laden and the production of President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate, a majority of Iowa Republicans still aren't convinced that the Commander in Chief was born in the United States. Just 48 percent say he was, with 32 percent firmly in the other camp, and 20 percent still holding out for the long-long form birth certificate (or something).

The full diclaimer, as usual, is that it's still early. Very, very early. Perry is currently riding the wave that comes with a high-profile announcement tour, but as we've reported, there are cracks in his armor that are likely to be exploited. And unlike standard primary states, Iowa's caucuses aren't straight-up popularity contests; they're time-consuming affairs that rely heavily on organization. In other words: Don't count Bachmann out just yet.

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Congress Has an Answer for Public Wrath: Eliminate Town Halls

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 5:20 AM EDT
A constituent questions Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) at a town hall meeting in August.

Congress' approval rating—currently 13 percent, according to Gallup—is at a historic low, and its disapproval rating, at 84 percent, is at a historic high. Many Americans eagerly awaited Congress' August recess so they could use town hall meetings and other public appearances to  give their elected officials a piece of their mind. There's just one problem: most of Congress isn't scheduling any town halls. None. Zilch.

The think tank No Labels called the offices of all 430 active members of Congress and found that 60 percent of them weren't scheduling town hall meetings. According to No Labels' analysis, more Democrats than Republicans are shutting themselves off from their constituents: 68 percent of Dems and 51 percent of Republicans hadn't planned a town hall during Congress' weeks-long summer break. (Click here to see if your representative or senator is planning a town hall or not.)

Not to be ignored, angry citizens, at least in one high profile district, have taken action to get some attention. Last week, a handful of unemployed constituents organized a sit-in in GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's office in Kenosha, Wisconsin, while 100 protesters picketed outside. Ryan in particular has drawn heaps of criticism for his plan to eliminate Medicare as we know it and refashion Medicaid into a state-based block grant program. In the end, Ryan's staff had police remove the protesters from the office, which was done peacefully.

Paul Ryan has made himself available during the recess—but for a price. That's right: Ryan and other lawmakers are now charging constituents to attend public events and ask them questions. Ryan wanted $15 a head. Rep. Dan Quayle (R-Ariz.), Politico reported, is charging $35 from attendees who want to ask him questions over a catered lunch at a Phoenix law firm. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) also wants money—$10 a person—to attend an his event, which is hosted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Why the ticket price? At the very least, it's a way to weed out the unemployed and financially burdened, who are also the most likely to give lawmakers an earful for the dismal state of the labor market and sluggish economic recovery. As Scott Page, a twice laid-off worker who participated in the sit-in inside Paul Ryan's office, told a local blogger, "I don't have $15 to ask Rep. Ryan questions, so I guess this is the only means I have to talk to him."

August '11 Town Halls

You Have the Right to Remain Silent…After Questioning

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Anyone who has ever watched a cop show on TV knows how Miranda rights work. After a suspect is apprehended, the arresting officer alerts that person to his or her rights—specifically, the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. The warning protects suspects from incriminating themselves and the state from later introducing inadmissible evidence.

Easy enough, right? Well, it's never been that simple for immigrant noncitizens, whether they're legal permanent residents or undocumented. When noncitizens are arrested by, say, local law enforcement, they are read their rights like anyone else. But when they're picked up by immigration officers (Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents), there are separate but similar Miranda-like procedures those officials must follow.

At least, there used to be. On August 11, in a surprising and precedent-setting decision (PDF), the country's highest administrative tribunal on immigration decided that noncitizens arrested without a warrant do not need to be read their rights until after entering formal deportation proceedings—that is, until well after questioning by immigration officers. From the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision:

Until an alien who is arrested without a warrant is placed in formal proceedings by the filing of a Notice to Appear (Form I-862), the regulation…does not require immigration officers to advise the alien that he or she has a right to counsel and that any statements made during interrogation can subsequently be used against the alien.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 23, 2011

Tue Aug. 23, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Soldiers from the Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, train an Iraqi soldier on close-quarters movement during a week of marksmanship training at an Iraqi military post near Contingency Operating Base, Speicher, Iraq, Aug. 18. The Iraqi soldiers learned basic, close-quarters, advanced marksmanship techniques, and how to enter and clear a room in an urban environment. Photo by Spc. Crystal Hudson.

Allen West: Israeli PM Netanyahu is Western Civilization's Best Hope

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 9:56 PM EDT
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) says Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is Western Civilization's last, best hope.

It's August and Congress is out of session, which means your elected representatives are probably back home meeting with constituents in Israel right now, on a junket paid for by an affiliate of AIPAC, the nation's largest pro-Israel lobbying group. The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that 81 members of Congress—a full 20 percent of the lower chamber—had plans to visit Israel this month, on two separate trips led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The summer sojourn has become a routine of sorts; Minnesota Rep. and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who believes America will be cursed if it fails to sufficiently support Israel, has taken regular trips to the country since being first elected in 2008.

Ostensibly the purpose of these trips is to see the sights, snag some photo-ops, and show Evangelical supporters back home that Congress is sufficiently gung-ho about Israel (because that was unclear). But a corollary of all of that is that it gives Republican congressmen who really, really don't like President Obama a chance to hang out with a head-of-state whom they actually support. It's part of a trend. You'll recall that Sarah Palin once said, during the Couric Sessions, that it would be flat-out un-American for the President to second-guess any decision by the Israeli government—even if it seemed to run counter to America's best interests. To wit, here's Florida Rep. Allen West, writing on Monday in a letter to his constituents:

For the second time in my life,  I am in Israel this week, but this is the first time I am visiting as a United States Member of Congress. I will have the opportunity, at this critical juncture, to meet with Israeli leadership and even visit with the representatives of the Palestinian Authority. My message is very simple; I stand with Israel, not with a backdoor unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state – particularly one which has joined in a reconciliation pact with Hamas.

In Israel, I will get the opportunity to meet with a true Leader, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. At a time when western civilization has no leading voice, I believe the only one that resonates, speaks Hebrew. And no, I am not afraid of going to Israel at this time. On the contrary, this is the best time to go to Israel!

Emphasis mine. The contrast is pretty clear here: West considers the President of the United States to be a "low-level socialist agitator"; he believes the Israeli Prime Minister is the last great hope of Western Civilization.