Mojo - May 2013

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

Fri May. 17, 2013 9:38 AM PDT

Lance Cpl. Brandon King, a driver with Delta Company, 1st Tank Battalion, performs maintenance on an M1 Abrams Tank at Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazay, Afghanistan, April 5, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline.

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Corn on Hardball: What's Obama's Next Move On the IRS Scandal?

Thu May. 16, 2013 12:01 PM PDT

Did President Obama make the right move when he ousted IRS commissioner Steven T. Miller yesterday? DC bureau chief David Corn joins the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman to discuss Miller's resignation on MSNBC's Hardball:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

What Obama Meant When He Said He Fantasizes About "Going Bulworth"

| Thu May. 16, 2013 9:12 AM PDT
"Bulworth" (1998).

"I would love to see Barack Obama be Bulworth." — actor Sean Penn, on Piers Morgan Tonight in Oct. 2011.

On Tuesday night, the New York Times ran a story examining the contrast between President Barack Obama's vision for his second term and the apparent deluge of scandal (and non-scandal) that has swamped the White House for the past weeks. The piece quotes Obama insiders and runs down bullet points for a second-term agenda, but the bit that's gotten the most attention (at least on Twitter and among the Washington news media) is the president's reference to a Warren Beatty political satire:

In private, he has talked longingly of "going Bulworth," a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him.

[...]

At the White House Correspondents Association dinner last month, he bristled at the idea that he should be pattern himself after Michael Douglas's assertive character in "The American President." Turning to Mr. Douglas, who was in the audience, he jokingly asked what his secret was. "Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?" Mr. Obama asked.

(The irony here is that both films bear the mark of writer Aaron Sorkin. The American President—which Sorkin wrote while high on crack cocaine—is a hilariously optimistic look at liberal politics in America that inspired much of Sorkin's successful NBC series The West Wing. And although Bulworth had three other credited writers—including Beatty—Sorkin served as an uncredited script doctor, and it shows.)

For those unfamiliar with the film, Bulworth is a middle-aged, cynical, and suicidal Democratic lawmaker who is in the pocket of health insurance companies. Shortly after hiring an assassin and putting a hit out on himself, he drunkenly embarks on his reelection campaign with a newfound, smirking nihilism that manifests itself in the form of politically incorrect straight talk about the US health care system, poverty, Newt Gingrich, American intervention in the Middle East, and so on. His political ballsiness quickly earns him a sharp spike in popularity and the privilege to make out with Halle Berry in front of the campaign press corps.

Also, the straight talk often involves Warren Beatty performing original and topical rap music in public, including this "Big Money" song in which he trolls the right by slamming the oil industry and promoting "socialism." Here's an excerpt from the scene:

It's safe to assume that the president did not mean to say that, in the face of recent outrages and pervasive Republican obstructionism, he regularly fantasizes about drunkenly spitting pro-socialist rhymes at high-profile fundraisers. It's merely an expression of the perfectly understandable desire of any American president to (on occasion angrily) tell it like it is, rather than be bound by the decorum of the office. "Probably every president says that from time to time," David Axelrod, a longtime Obama adviser, told the Times. "It's probably cathartic just to say it. But the reality is that while you want to be truthful, you want to be straightforward, you also want to be practical about whatever you're saying."

The pop-cultural reference provoked some snark and mockery from reporters and commentators on the internet. But with the lousy few weeks the White House has been experiencing, it's mildly surprising the president didn't express a private fantasy about "going James Marshall":

GOP Bill To Hogtie Wall Street Watchdog Heads for Vote

| Thu May. 16, 2013 7:20 AM PDT

A bill designed to tie the hands of a key Wall Street regulator is headed for a vote in the House this week.

The SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, introduced by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and co-sponsored by 23 other Republicans, sounds innocuously administrative. The bill would direct the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) "to conduct cost-benefit analyses to ensure that the benefits of any rulemaking outweigh the costs," according to a statement by the House Financial Services Committee. Plus, says Garrett, the bill is good for jobs, job-creators, and people who want jobs. "The American people are hungry for common sense reform that will help unleash the economy," he said in a statement. "I regularly hear from constituents, especially job creators, about how Washington red tape needs to be cut."

But financial reform advocates say the bill could kill tons of new regulations designed to rein in the industry that crashed the economy a few years ago. "Cost-benefit has become a favorite club used by industry to try and kill legislation," Dennis Kelleher of the financial reform group Better Markets told me earlier this year. The SEC is in the process of finalizing scores of new rules required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and reformers say Garrett's bill would force the agency to study the impacts of regulations before they are known, and require analysis that would delay final rules. Not only that, says Kelleher, but the cost-benefit analysis the bill calls for includes only "industry costs," not potential longer term costs to the broader economy that could result from killing these rules. For example, the SEC would have to consider the cost of to industry of making foreign banks adhere to US regulations, but not the cost to the global economy of allowing those banks to be regulated by potentially weaker foreign rules. (Many federal agencies are required to consider cost-benefit analyses when developing major rules, but the SEC and other independent agencies—those outside federal executive departments that are headed by a Cabinet secretary—are exempt.)

The White House slammed Garrett's bill when it was approved by the House rules committee Wednesday, arguing that it would keep the SEC from doing its job. "The Administration believes in the value of cost-benefit analysis," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. "However, [the bill] would add onerous procedures that would threaten the implementation of key reforms related to financial stability and investor protection." Still, the president stopped short of saying he'd veto the bill.

As my colleague Tim Murphy reported Wednesday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House rules committee, attempted to stymie the deregulatory bill by attaching an amendment that would have required political intelligence operatives to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and disclose their clients. It was voted down.

Now the GOP bill is headed to the House floor for a vote by Friday. Kelleher has his fingers crossed that the bill doesn't make it into law.  "Financial reform does not exist to minimize cost on the industry that almost caused a second great depression," he says.

Tennessee Congressman Slams Holder on Pot Prosecution

| Thu May. 16, 2013 7:17 AM PDT
Attorney General Eric Holder.

Attorney General Eric Holder's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee went exactly like you'd expect. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) grilled him on the excessive redaction of emails he'd requested relating to Secretary of Labor-nominee Tom Perez. Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.) grilled him on the investigation into leaked intelligence on the Benghazi attack. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) grilled him on his failure to recuse himself in writing from said leak investigation. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said some crazy things about asparagus.

But not everyone was as focused on the scandals du jour (or asparagus). In a rare moment of actual congressional outrage over federal sentencing guidelines and drug policy, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) used his allotted five minutes to question the administration's near-total refusal to make use of its pardon power—and its continued prosecution of marijuana offenses. The money quote:

One of the greatest threats to liberty has been the government taking people's liberty for things that people are in favor of. The Pew Research Group shows that 52 percent of Americans think that marijuana should not be illegal. And yet there are people in jail, and your Justice Department continues to put people in jail for sale and use, on occasion, of marijuana. That's something the American public has finally caught up with. It was a cultural lag, and it's been an injustice for 40 years in this country, to take people's liberty for something that was similar to alcohol. You have continued what is allowing the Mexican cartels power, and the power to make money, ruin Mexico, hurt our country, by having a prohibition in the late 20th- and 21st-century. We saw it didn't work in this country in the '20s, we remedied it. This is the time to remedy this prohibition, and I would hope you would do so.

Watch:

Why Won't the Feds Rein In the Firms That Tanked America's Economy?

| Wed May. 15, 2013 7:36 PM PDT

It looks like one of the primary causes of the 2007 financial crash may be here to stay.

Before the crisis, the credit-rating agencies (such as Fitch, Moody's, and Standard & Poor's) that evaluate the relative risk of investment products offered by Wall Street banks, routinely assigned their highest ratings to bonds built out of junky, high-risk mortgages. Because of those ratings, the bad bonds sold like hotcakes, which in turn encouraged lenders to make more high-risk loans to sell to the banks to package into more risky bonds—and so on until the house of cards came down. (For a great read on all of this, see Michael Lewis' "The Big Short.")

Part of the reason the ratings agencies behaved so recklessly is that they were (and still are) paid by the banks whose products they rate. Yet even now, years after the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission isn't sure what it wants to do, if anything, about this loaded situation. So it held a roundtable discussion on Tuesday to think about it some more.

Credit-rating agencies "effectively took huge bribes from banks to misinform people about risk," says Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform. "This is a critical issue and [the SEC] has taken a complete pass on it" so far.

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IRS Head Forced Out After Tea Party Scandal

| Wed May. 15, 2013 5:55 PM PDT

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has requested and accepted the resignation of acting Internal Revenue Service commissioner Steven Miller in response to news that the agency singled out some conservative organizations for extra scrutiny.

Beginning in March 2010, the IRS targeted groups with words like "tea party" and "patriot" in their names when applying tax laws relating to political activity. There's no evidence other groups got the same level of scrutiny, although according to a investigation by the Treasury Department's inspector general, that was due more to murky campaign finance laws than ideological discrimination.

"I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has in all of our lives," said Obama, who took heat this week over the IRS affair as well as his administration's handling of the Benghazi attack and the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records.

Miller wasn't at the IRS when the Tea Party targeting happened—Bush appointee Doug Shulman was in charge then. But according to the IRS, Miller failed to alert the Obama administration to the problem when he learn it in May 2012. Miller is scheduled to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday.

Obama also announced that he had told Treasury Secretary Lew to implement recommendations in the inspector general's report, which doesn't mention Miller's name, and said he will work with Congress "as it performs its oversight role."

Harry Reid: Obama's Pick for Labor Secretary Will Get a Vote Soon

| Wed May. 15, 2013 1:10 PM PDT
Labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez

Much news has been made of the dozens of judicial slots left vacant due to the constant roadblocks set by Senate Republicans. But Republicans have also blocked or delayed an unprecedented number of cabinet-level presidential nominees during the Obama administration, including most recently labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, a progressive whose confirmation vote Republicans have repeatedly derailed.

"Now they're double-teaming him," Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid complained during a Wednesday morning meeting with reporters at the Capitol. "They're holding hearings in the House as to how he's doing in his present job."

House Republicans have scrutinized Perez's alleged role in preventing a St. Paul housing discrimination case from reaching the Supreme Court, and his use of a personal email address to conduct official business. That, Reid said, was done "just to deflect attention from the fact that he's being held up [in the Senate]."

To push back, Senate Democrats plan to force committee votes on three cabinet-level nominees, including Perez. Reid's office expects Perez to be voted out of committee on Thursday, after which Reid plans to schedule a confirmation vote in the near future. Senate Democrats, including Harry Reid, have also floated the possibility of using the nuclear option, which would change Senate rules through a simple majority vote to prevent filibusters on nominees.

The only cabinet-level nominee who has arguably faced harsher resistance from Republicans was former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican himself who was confirmed as secretary of defense in February after facing a filibuster unprecedented for his cabinet position.

Republicans have also been using procedural maneuvers in the Senate to block two other cabinet-level nominees: Obama fundraiser Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary, and Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Reid also said he planned to schedule a vote soon for Richard Cordray, an uncontroversial lower-level nominee picked to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If Republicans block his nomination, Talking Points Memo reports, it could strengthen the case for filibuster reform.

"I'm going to make sure he's going to have a vote next week, and we'll see what happens after that," Reid said of Cordray. "But my point is, this [obstruction] can't go on. This is not good for the country."

Earlier this year, Reid disappointed allies craving real filibuster reform when he declined to pursue major Senate rules changes. He said he has no current plans to take on filibuster reforms, such as one that would weaken Senators' ability to block nominees, but is considering doing so "very closely" as Republicans continue to threaten filibusters against Obama nominees.

"Whether it’s Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton that’s the next president, I don’t think they should have to go through what we’ve gone through here," Reid said.

Top Dem Trying to Resurrect Political Intel Disclosure Requirement

| Wed May. 15, 2013 11:40 AM PDT
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.)

Rep. Louise Slaughter, the top Democrat on the powerful House rules committee, has a response to Republican efforts to water-down financial reform legislation: Tie it to political intelligence. On Tuesday, with the rules committee set to consider the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, a GOP bill designed to stunt the Security and Exchange Commission's implementation of the Dodd–Frank financial reform law, Slaughter introduced an amendment that would prevent the law from going into effect unless Congress also passes a law requiring so-called political intelligence operatives to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and disclose their clients. Slaughter would also extend revolving-door statutes to government employees who join the private sector, mandating a cooling-off period of varying length before they can begin working as a political intelligence operative.

Political intelligence is a roughly $400-million-a-year industry which collects information on Congressional and regulatory wheeling and dealing, and passes it on to clients on Wall Street. Political intel operatives insist they come in peace, and that their work at its most basic level is a lot like that done by journalists—albeit for much smaller audiences. The counterpoint from disclosure advocates is this story from the Wall Street Journal, which describes how a hedge fund gained early access to a decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and triggered a spike in the stock prices of health insurers. The SEC launched an investigation into the case in April.

Slaughter first floated regulation of political intelligence in 2006, and nearly pushed it through last year before a fierce push-back from hedge fund lobbyists slammed the door. Her amendment isn't expected to pass, but it's a preview of what Slaughter and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are hoping to unveil in a few months, after the SEC finishes its probe.

Here's the amendment:

 

 

Update: Slaughter's amendment was blocked. Here's the relevant exchange:

Corn on MSNBC: It's Insulting To Watergate to Compare Anything to Watergate

Wed May. 15, 2013 10:32 AM PDT

The spate of investigations in Washington this week is great fodder for GOP members, who have repeatedly compared the scandals to Watergate. DC Bureau Chief David Corn doesn't think it's a fair comparison: "It's insulting to Watergate to compare anything to Watergate!" he says. Watch him discuss the Watergate analogy with Salon's Joan Walsh and host Al Sharpton on MSNBC's PoliticsNation:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.