Mojo - April 2013

"Ninja Innovation" and Shiny Electronic Toys Invade Capitol Hill, Beguile Congressmen

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 10:28 AM EDT

On Tuesday night, members of Congress and their staff shuffled down to the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria to gawk at big screens, mess around with shiny new gadgets, and scarf down finger food while sipping free booze. For two hours, the room where House interns and legislative aides usually eat their lunch was transformed into the Consumer Electronics Show on the Hill, a special DC version of the Consumer Electronics Association's annual Vegas trade show.

"You got toys! I love toys," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee and a CEA honoree shown here playing a track-and-field Kinect game at a previous event, exclaimed upon entering.

CES on the Hill has been an annual event for Congress since 2010, when it was first held in DC's Eastern Market. In 2012, the show was moved to the Rayburn building. The event supplements CEA's standard lobbying, and allows the trade organization to treat some of the nation's most powerful elected officials to the industry's latest advances in "ninja innovation," a term coined by CEA president Gary Shapiro to describe tech innovation that is too powerful to remain unassociated with ninjas. "I hope you leave today's event with a clear understanding what ninja innovation is all about," Shapiro writes in a welcome note. I didn't, but Shapiro literally wrote the book on "ninja innovation," which blends his study of martial arts with his examination of what he views as the world's most successful companies.

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Wall Street Is Scared of Guns

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 10:23 AM EDT

A .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, similar to the one Adam Lanza used in the Newtown shooting.

Over the past year, Wall Street has had a few image problems: money-laundering scandals, interest rate fixing scandals, and mortgage lending scandals. The Street doesn't seem too worried about playing with fire, though. And why should it be? Profits are up. But there is one thing that financiers don't want to mess with: guns. Reuters and the Wall Street Journal report that many banks are unwilling to bid for Freedom Group, the company that made the Bushmaster assault rifle that Adam Lanza used to murder 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut in December.

Immediately after the December tragedy, Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that owns Freedom Group, decided to sell the company as a way to avoid negative publicity during the ensuing gun-control debate. In order to create a starting price to auction off the gun manufacturer, Cerberus is planning to place its own bid, in conjunction with other investors, in which it will have a minority financial stake.

But it's looking like those necessary extra investors are not interested. As the Journal reports that "negative publicity around guns has already weighed on the process. Citing [PR] concerns, some investment banks declined to aid Cerberus in the sale." Columnist Robert Cyran writes at Reuters that "this cold shoulder from lenders could make selling Freedom Group more difficult." The Journal, citing people familiar with the potential bid, says that "it remains possible that there will be no buyer for Freedom Group."

In this case, it seems that Wall Street has a better sense of American public opinion than the Senate, which failed to pass a bipartisan background check bill on Wednesday. Here's Reuters: "While lawmakers in Washington are only gingerly tackling the idea that some guns are more dangerous than others, this turned out to be an easy distinction for several [of the banks'] reputational risk committees to make... [A]iding a big maker of semiautomatics is a publicity disaster waiting to happen."

As Cyran puts it, '"Making assault rifles, it turns out, has joined pornography on the list of activities with risks that money can’t hide."

Have You Seen Mitch McConnell's Facebook Page?

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 9:01 PM EDT

The classy folks over at Team McConnell posted this status update to the Senator's Facebook page after the defeat of the watered-down Manchin-Toomey background checks compromise. For a dose of reality, read some of the devastating quotes from the disappointed families of victims of the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings in Gavin Aronsen's story on the vote.

Screenshot of Mitch McConnell's Facebook page. 

 The status message that accompanies the post implies that they didn't make the meme-style image themselves:

As of 10:00 p.m. EDT the post had not been taken down even as Facebook users posted thousands of highly critical comments. 

UPDATE, Thursday, 5pm EDT: Buzzfeed reports that this meme image originated on the Comedy Central Indecision Tumblr and was the work of Comedy Central blogger Ilya Gerner. McConnell's campaign manager Jesse Benton (of "gestapo" fame) had this to say:

The meme was sent to one of our staffers in an email chain. It made us laugh, so we decided to post on the campaign facebook page.

Here Are the 8 Other Gun Bills About to Face a Vote in the Senate

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 11:59 AM EDT

UPDATE 2, Thursday, April 18: The Senate today voted for both Barrasso's gun privacy and Harkin's and Alexander's mental health amendments.

UPDATE, Thursday, April 18: On Wednesday, the Senate voted on seven of the nine amendments to Harry Reid's gun control package. They were all rejected. Today, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the privacy amendment introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and the mental health amendment introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

ORIGINAL POST: On Wednesday morning, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) both publicly conceded that the background check compromise they forged—which would expand scrutiny of gun buyers online and at gun shows, but would also grant many concessions to the gun lobby—won't receive 60 votes this afternoon to survive a Republican filibuster. But the gun debate isn't over yet: The background checks bill is just the first of nine amendments proposed for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's gun control package that will get a vote beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Here's a quick rundown of the others in the order in which they will come up:

Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) mental health amendment:  Grassley's Protecting Communities and Preserving the Second Amendment Act of 2013 (PDF), which is cosponsored by five other Republicans, is the conservative alternative to Reid's gun package. Both include measures on improving background checks, school safety, and gun trafficking prosecutions. But Grassley's bill would also "place limitations on Fast & Furious type operations," according to a fact sheet his office put out.

Sens. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) and Susan Collins' (R-Maine) gun trafficking amendment: The Leahy-Collins amendment would make gun trafficking a federal felony and strengthen penalties against straw purchasers, including a measure subjecting a gun seller involved in a straw purchase to criminal charges. Convicted gun traffickers would face prison sentences of up to 25 years.

Did Organizing for Action Break Its No-Lobbying Pledge?

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 10:36 AM EDT

From the start, Organizing for Action, the pro-Obama advocacy group formed out of the president's reelection campaign, said it would not lobby. OFA was created to galvanize tens of millions Obama supporters behind the president's second-term agenda, including new gun-control laws, immigration reform, and legislation to address climate change. But OFA's website makes clear that it "will not directly lobby elected officials on behalf of the policies it supports, nor will it hire lobbyists to do so."

But recently, OFA registered as a lobbyist in New York State. What gives?

OFA recently joined the coalition of reform groups pushing for a new, statewide public-financing bill for all state elections in New York. Jon Carson, OFA's director, wrote in an email that "OFA supporters are joining the fight to reduce the influence of special interests in state elections, and put the power back into the hands of New Yorkers." At the same time, OFA's chief of staff Grant Campbell told (PDF) the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics that OFA planned to spend more than $5,000 and so would need to sign up as a lobbyist. The group said it would lobby Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the State Senate on the public financing bill. The conservative Washington Free Beacon site broke the story of OFA's lobbying filing.

So did OFA violate its no-lobbying pledge? In name, yes; in practice, no. The way New York election law works, any decent-sized group urging lawmakers into action, whether by mobilizing voters outside the halls of government or pleading its case directly with elected officials, counts as a lobbyist. It's a broader definition than we're used to. All it takes is $5,000 or more in spending and New York State considers you a "lobbyist."

I asked an OFA spokeswoman for her take on this. "In New York, our online grassroots communications in support of Fair Elections in New York require us to file disclosure reports, and OFA has filed all proper paperwork to meet those requirements," she told me. "We will not directly lobby officials. This is a communications campaign to give our supporters the ability to push this important legislation to reduce special interest influence in that state."

Now, if OFA does decide to directly lobby Governor Cuomo, say, or a member of the State Senate, then it's case closed. That's lobbying by anyone's definition. But for now, OFA is doing what it's always said it would do, and doesn't seem to have run afoul its anti-lobbying pledge.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 17, 2013

Wed Apr. 17, 2013 8:54 AM EDT

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division and Afghan National Army soldiers assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps carry a mock casualty from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during medical evacuation training at Forward Operating Base Joyce, Kunar province, Afghanistan, March 25, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan Hallgarth.

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We All Scream For Wayne LaPierre's Ice Cream

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 5:30 AM EDT

From my cold, dead, sticky hands…

Among the revelations in last weekend's New York Times profile of National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre was this delicious nugget: "His fantasy," according to a former colleague, "was to retire from the NRA and open an ice cream shop in Maine." Should LaPierre ever beat his swords into ice cream scoops, here are a few suggestions for flavors that will set him apart from Ben & Jerry's:

Second Amendmint

S'more Guns, Less Crime

Glocky Road

Concealed Carry Garcia

Mmmmmm-16

Stand Your Grounds (with real espresso beans!)

Jamoca Ammo Fudge

Freeze, M*****f*****!

Shall Not Be In-Fridged

Banana Clip Chip

License to Chill

Jackfruited Thugs (exotic sorbet flavor)

Wayne Swirled

What, no hand-packed pints of Gun Nut? The Star Spangled Ice Cream company beat him to it a decade ago—and even scored an endorsement from NRA board member Ted Nugent.

Big Corporations Won't Be Sweating the IRS This Year

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Lots of average Americans who filed their tax returns this week will soon face the unpleasant prospect of having those returns audited. But corporations with at least $10 million in assets (or far more) have much less to fear from the tax man. Behemoths such as Microsoft and General Electric have taken a beating in the press lately because of how little in US taxes they pay, thanks to extremely complicated and aggressive use of offshore tax havens. The criticism doesn't seem to have affected how corporations are treated by the IRS, though. According to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, in the current fiscal year, the IRS plans to devote 18 percent less effort to auditing companies with more than $10 million in assets than it did just two years ago. The agency has seen a $1 billion budget cut in the past year, and all of this comes before the effect of the sequester, which will slash $600 million from its budget this year. The IRS also projects that the amount of time available for specialized agents to conduct these audits will drop 14 percent as well, thanks to staffing cuts. 

The IRS measures employee budgeted time in staff years, whose decline is shown in this chart:

Large Business and International Division Direct Examination Staff Years Transactional Records Access Clearing House

While the amount of staff time devoted to auditing the average Joe has gone up 62 percent since 2011, it's fallen nearly 30 percent for corporations. The IRS's workforce today is 23 percent smaller than it was in 1992, even though the number of returns filed has gone up 27 percent over the same period, according to TRAC. The acting IRS commissioner testified before Congress on April 9 that the agency is down 10,000 employees compared to what it had during the 2010 tax season. And the agency is being asked to do even more work. It's responsible for implementing key sections of the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) and it is grappling with a significant number of cases of identity theft that are projected to cost the country billions in fraudulent refunds if not addressed promptly. 

Yet thanks to the forced, across-the-board budget cuts imposed by Congress, the IRS is going to have to close up shop for seven days in 2013, when work will essentially grind to a halt.  All of these cuts seem shortsighted, given that the IRS collects 93 percent of all government revenue. Failing to collect what all taxpayers owe leaves the federal budget short about $400 billion per year. More robust funding of the IRS that would allow it to go after more of corporate America's bigger players might help reduce the need for some of the sequester cuts.

Anonymous Threatens Westboro Baptist Church

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 10:17 PM EDT

In the wake of yesterday's bombing at the Boston Marathon, the Westboro Baptist Church—the small yet noisy bunch who gained national attention for picketing the funerals of American soldiers in the name of hating gay people—did what they do: It announced its plans to yell at people attending funerals of Boston Marathon victims for not being godly enough.

The hacker group Anonymous wasn't a fan of this, so today it threatened the Topeka, Kansas-based church with unspecified retaliation. Earlier today, Anonymous members apparently hacked WBC's Facebook account, rewriting bio information and plastering its wall with an assortment of meme-heavy images. Update (1:37 a.m. April 17) Earlier today, people on Twitter reported that Anonymous members had apparently hacked WBC's Facebook account, rewriting bio information and plastering its wall with an assortment of meme-heavy images. Well, it turns out that they, and I, were a little too excited at the possibility. It looks like Anonymous members have been engaged in the brandjacking (read: squatting) of the (bogus) Westboro Baptist Church page for the past four months.

But that doesn't mean they're not serving up some amusing posts:

1. In which the church founders include beloved cereal box character "Captain Crunch":
westboro baptist church anonymous hacking boston marathon

2. For all the Star Trek fans:

Star Trek Westboro Baptist Church hack

3. Self-explanatory:

Dark Knight Westboro Baptist Church hack

4. Dr. King:

Martin Luther King Jr. Westboro Baptist Church Anonymous

5. #YOLO:

yolo westboro baptist church

6. Here's some Obama:

Obama westboro baptist church hacking

7. Now have some Condi:

Condoleezza Rice Westboro Facebook hack

8. And the obligatory cat:

Cat Westboro Baptist Church Anonymous

9. "POKEMON ABUSE":

Pokemon abuse Westboro Baptist Church facebook hack

10. And finally some Austin Powers:

Austin Powers Westboro Baptist Church

This isn't the only time Anonymous has targeted the Westboro Baptist Church. In mid-December, after WBC announced that they would crash the Newtown funerals, the online collective apparently hacked the church's website (the predictably titled godhatesfags.com) and the Twitter feed of Westboro-er Shirley Phelps-Roper. It also posted church members' personal information online.

John Dean: The McConnell Tape Isn't Watergate and May Not Be Illegal

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 7:27 PM EDT

John Dean, a principal in the Watergate scandal, in 1975

This is interesting. John Dean, Richard Nixon's White House counsel and a star Watergate witness, has weighed in on the McConnell tape controversy. His take: This ain't Watergate, and the making of the tape probably wasn't illegal.

After Mother Jones and I disclosed a secretly recorded tape capturing Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and campaign aides discussing using actor/activist Ashley Judd's past struggles with depression and her religious views as political ammo (should she challenge McConnell), McConnell and aides claimed the minority leader was the victim of a Watergate-style operation and called on the FBI to investigate. McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, also played the Hitler card and compared the taping to "Gestapo" tactics. At the end of last week, local Kentucky media reported that two local Democratic operatives linked to a super-PAC called Progress Kentucky, Curtis Morrison and Shawn Reilly, were involved in the taping, having recorded a conversation they heard in a hallway after an open house at McConnell's campaign headquarters in Louisville. Subsequent reports fingered Morrison more than Reilly. And Morrison has set up a legal defense fund without publicly acknowledging any role in the taping. (I did not comment on the media reports naming Morrison and Reilly because I had promised my source confidentiality.)