Mojo - February 2014

Elizabeth Warren to Fed: Stop Delegating on Enforcement

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 1:25 PM EST

On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called on the heads of the Federal Reserve, the US central bank that sets monetary policy and helps regulate Wall Street, to take a more active role in bank oversight.

The Fed metes out dozens of penalties against banks each year, for infractions including faulty foreclosure practices and inadequate money laundering protections. But the seven board members—including newly-minted Fed chair Janet Yellen—who head the Federal Reserve rarely vote on penalty and enforcement decisions. Of the roughly 1,000 formal enforcement actions taken by the Federal Reserve over the past 10 years, only 11 were voted on by the board. The rest were delegated to Fed staff, sometimes even mid-level employees. Warren, who sits on the Senate banking committee, and Cummings, the ranking member of the House oversight and government reform committee, have been critical of this arrangement, arguing that the delegation of authority results in penalties that are too lenient. On Tuesday, the two Democrats sent a letter to Yellen asking her to tighten the Fed's rules governing when the Board of Governors may delegate regulatory decisions, and when they must take important supervisory duties into their own hands.

"We respectfully request that the Fed…require that the Board retain greater authority over the Fed's enforcement and supervisory activities," Warren and Cummings wrote. "We believe that increasing the Board's direct role in overseeing enforcement and supervision would strengthen the Fed's efforts to reduce systemic risk in our financial system."

The two note that the Fed Board gives more attention to monetary policy decisions than to its other mandate, bank oversight: "While the Board votes on every important decision the Fed makes on monetary policy, the board rarely votes on the Fed's important supervisory and enforcement policy decisions." Other Wall Street regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), require that all bank penalties be approved by their head panels.

In their letter, Warren and Cummings ask Yellen to require the Fed board to vote on any penalty agreement that exceeds $1 million or that involves changes in bank management. They also urge that all board members be notified before staff members enter into an enforcement action against a bank.

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Potential 2016 Contender Martin O'Malley Supports New Bill to Wean Politicians Off Big Money

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 1:01 PM EST
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

While Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential contest, has made headlines lately for the big-money-fueled super-PACs lining up in her corner, another potential Democratic contender, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, is embracing the other end of the political money spectrum.

O'Malley, who would likely run to the left of Clinton in 2016, says he supports the Government By The People Act, a new bill recently introduced by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes intended to increase the number of small-dollar donors in congressional elections and nudge federal candidates to court those $50 and $100 givers instead of wealthier people who can easily cut $2,500 checks. The nuts and bolts of the Government By The People Act are nothing new: To encourage political giving, Americans get a $25 tax credit for the primary season and another $25 credit for the general election. And on the candidate side, every dollar of donations up to $150 will be matched with six dollars of public money, in effect "supersizing" small donations. (Participating candidates must agree to a $1,000 cap on all contributions to get that 6-to-1 match.) In other words, the Sarbanes bill wants federal campaigns funded by more people giving smaller amounts instead of fewer people maxing out.

What makes the Sarbanes bill stand out is breadth of support it enjoys. The bill has 130 cosponsors—all Democrats with the exception of Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.)—including Sarbanes and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) And practically every progressive group under the sun has stumped for the Government By The People Act, including the Communication Workers of America, the Teamsters, Sierra Club, NAACP, Working Families, Friends of Democracy super-PAC, and more. Through efforts like the Democracy Initiative and the Fund for the Republic, progressives are mobilizing around the issue of money in politics, and their championing of Sarbanes' bill is a case in point.

But O'Malley is the first 2016 hopeful to stump for the reforms outlined in the Government By The People Act. "We need more action and smarter solutions to improve our nation's campaign finance system, and I commend Congressmen John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen for their leadership on this important issue," O'Malley said in a statement. "Elections are the foundation of a successful democracy and these ideas will put us one step closer toward a better, more representative system that reflects the American values we share."

No other Democratic headliners, including Clinton, have taken a position on the Sarbanes bill. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did include a statewide public financing program in his latest budget proposal. And Clinton, as a senator, cosponsored the Kerry-Wellstone Clean Elections Act.) Yet with nearly every major liberal group rallying around the money-in-politics issue, any Democrat angling for the White House in 2016 will need to speak up on how he or she will reform today's big-money political system.

VIDEO: David Corn on Whether Chris Christie Is Coming to Terms with His Bridge Scandal

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 11:40 AM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and Joy Reid this week about why New Jersey governor Chris Christie's fundraising visit to Chicago. Watch here:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 12, 2014

Wed Feb. 12, 2014 11:11 AM EST

Cpl. Ryan A. Siwak, a cannoneer with Golf Battery, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and native of Penn Yan, N. Y., winces as oleoresin capsicum (a more potent form of pepper spray) hits his face during the culminating event of the unit’s public disorder and non-lethal weapons employment training aboard Camp Hanson, Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 24, 2014. Experiencing OC spray ensures Marines understand the effects and, if cross-contaminated during use, they are able to fight through the pain and perform their job. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew Kuppers/Released)

Why Silicon Valley's Top Dogs Fought Back So Feebly Against NSA Spying

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Remember the SOPA blackout? The 2012 protest against the expansion of online copyright enforcement was pretty hard to ignore, with Google and other major sites blacking out their homepage logos or going offline entirely.

Yesterday's "The Day We Fight Back" protest against NSA surveillance was supposed to have been similarly huge, but unless you follow this sort of thing closely, you might have missed it. It was covered lightly in the press, and only briefly trended on Twitter. Given how much Edward Snowden's revelations have supposedly insulted the sensibilities and threatened the profits of Silicon Valley, the "we" in "The Day We Fight Back" has proved surprisingly small.

It's not such a huge leap from protesting NSA spying to protesting the practices of private data-miners.

This is not to say the NSA protest didn't get any attention: It generated 350,000 Facebook shares, some 75,000 phone calls and 150,000 emails to Congress, and 215,000 signatures on an online petition. Yet that can't touch the impact of the protest against Stop Online Piracy Act—the largest protest in the short history of the internet. The SOPA campaign took off because "people find it much easier to rally around a specific 'ask'" such as killing SOPA, says Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which helped organize yesterday's protest—"a much broader ask and a much more nuanced ask."

Yet the anti-NSA action might have gone viral had major tech companies put their weight behind it. While the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition (which includes Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft) endorsed the protest, and Google and Twitter issued supportive statements, you wouldn't have known it from their homepages.

The reluctance of Big Tech to ally too publicly with NSA critics reflects the complexity and geopolitical sensitivity of surveillance in the digital age. On one hand, American tech companies need to side with the privacy advocates to reassure their users—especially noncitizen users—that their data isn't simply being handed over to the feds. On the other, appearing too anti-establishment could make them look unpatriotic, jeopardize government contracts, and hurt their other legislative priorities, such as immigration and tax reform.

And then there's the question of whether Silicon Valley really wants to stoke the fires of indignation about online privacy. It's not such a huge leap from protesting the collection of personal data by government spies to protesting similar practices by private data-miners and online advertisers.

The SOPA blackout represented the perfect storm of consumer indignation and corporate self-interest. People wanted to upload and view songs and movies without getting thrown in jail and the owners of file-sharing sites such as Facebook and YouTube wanted to keep selling ads based on all of those uploads and page views. The NSA battle is different: A creeping police state could be a much more serious threat, but it's also much harder to figure out how it would affect surfing the Net, or the strength of the next quarterly earnings report.

Boehner Struggles to Find 18 Republicans Who Don't Want to Nuke the Economy

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 1:14 PM EST

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) admitted defeat Tuesday morning. His chamber needs to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling by the end of the day Wednesday. House Democrats head to a retreat in Maryland on Thursday and Congress is on vacation next week for President's Day, leaving few working days before the February 27 deadline issued by the Treasury Department. Boehner and his Republican colleagues had debated various asks they might attach to a bill raising the government's borrowing limit—approving the Keystone Pipeline, repealing parts of Obamacare, and restoring a cut to military pensions were all considered—but by Tuesday it had become clear that the GOP couldn't find a consensus. Boehner conceded that reality at a press conference. He'll now have to rely on Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to, yet again, deliver the majority of the Democratic caucus to save his hide.

The only trouble? Boehner isn't even sure if he'll be able to eek out the bare minimum of necessary votes from his own caucus, a mere 18 votes if every Democrat approves of the clean debt ceiling raise. "If you don't have 218, you don't have anything," he said. "We're going to have to find them."

Voting to raise the debt ceiling should be a no-brainer. The consequences of letting the government default would be catastrophic. In December, 169 House Republicans voted on the Ryan-Murray budget. To then turn around and vote against the government's ability to pay the bills for that budget appears illogical, until you consider the pressure conservative groups will exert on any Republican who raising the debt ceiling. The Senate Conservatives Fund—a group pushing tea party challengers in primaries—quickly denounced Boehner Tuesday, calling for a coup to replace him as speaker. Heritage Action plans to hold an approving vote against Republicans in their scorecard.

Boehner won't have much time to win over his wary colleagues. The House is scheduled to vote on the clean debt ceiling increase Tuesday night so that lawmakers can flee town before a winter storm hits Washington late Wednesday.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 11, 2014

Tue Feb. 11, 2014 11:09 AM EST

Soldiers with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force conduct an amphibious insertion using combat rubber reconnaissance crafts during Exercise Iron Fist 2014 aboard Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., Jan. 29, 2014. Iron Fist is an amphibious exercise that brings together Marines and sailors from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, other I Marine Expeditionary Force units, and soldiers from the JGSDF, to promote military interoperability and hone individual and small-unit skills through challenging, complex and realistic training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Emmanuel Ramos/Released)

New Jersey's Largest Paper on Christie Endorsement: "We Blew This One"

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:55 AM EST
Christie speaks to reporters about superstorm Sandy recovery funds.

Last fall, New Jersey’s largest paper, the Newark Star-Ledger, endorsed Gov. Chris Christie for reelection. Parts of its admittedly reluctant endorsement read more like a takedown. For instance:

The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment….The governor’s claim to have fixed the state’s budget is fraudulent. New Jersey’s credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street’s judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper.

The peculiar statement left many people scratching their heads (including Rachel Maddow, who mocked it at length on her MSNBC show). Why, they wondered, would the paper endorse a candidate it held in such low esteem? Now, following the Christie administration's George Washington Bridge scandal and other damning accusations, the paper is backing away from its choice. Editorial page editor Tom Moran and the editorial board admitted in Sunday's Star-Ledger that they made a mistake by endorsing Christie. In their words:

An endorsement is not a love embrace. It is a choice between two flawed human beings. And the winner is often the less bad option.

But yes, we blew this one…We knew Christie was a bully. But we didn’t know his crew was crazy enough to put people’s lives at risk in Fort Lee as a means to pressure the mayor. We didn’t know he would use Hurricane Sandy aid as a political slush fund. And we certainly didn’t know that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was sitting on a credible charge of extortion by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Interestingly, despite his flaws, the authors won't rule out endorsing him again one day.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 10, 2014

Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:07 AM EST

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division conducting a force protection patrol outside of DSP McClean scan the terrain on a hilltop overlooking the village of Mohammad Agah in Logar province, Afghanistan Jan. 23. (Photo by U.S. Army Capt. John Goodwill, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division Public Affairs)

The Melodic: Young Guns of Brixton

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 7:00 AM EST

It's kind of funny, because I first stumbled across the fabulous English folksinger Johnny Flynn when I randomly picked his debut album out of the free pile of CDs overlooked for review, and then found myself listening to it again and again. Now, thanks to Flynn, I've been turned on to The Melodic, a young Brixton band whose debut LP, Effra Parade, came out in November. Here's "Runaway."

I caught these guys opening for Flynn last week at San Francisco's cozy Rickshaw Stop, the final stop of their mutual American tour. The sold-out crowd showed up for Flynn, but gave The Melodic its full attention and was rewarded with a set of richly layered, harmony-laden, often upbeat, evocative music that their label, Anti-, bills as afro-folk-pop—categories, categories. Still, that's pretty apt. There are definitely African and Caribbean/Jamaican rhythmic and melodic influences, and perhaps a dose of the 1960s folk in which some of the band members immersed themselves at various points. They've also got some atypical instrumentation—Effra Parade employs 18 instruments, including the Charango, a 10-stringed Andean devil.

Before the show, I met Rudi Schmidt, whose father produced music for Jah Wobble and the Specials' Jerry Dammers, and who grew up surrounded by music and musicians and unusual instruments. He was turned onto the Charango (not to mention the melodica, another arrow in the band's quiver) by a Chilean pal, and then traveled to Bolivia to study with Charango master Ernesto Cavour, eventually even touring with the country's national orchestra and the La Paz Folk Ballet.

Johnny Flynn

Now the kid can really jam on the thing, and does wonderful point-counterpoint leads with singer/guitarist Huw Williams, who knows his way around an acoustic. Williams alternates lead and harmony vocals with Lydia Samuels, who also plays autoharp and melodica and had the crowd rapt after her gorgeous cover of a song by….Okay, so maybe I shouldn't have had that second pint. But if you ask her, maybe she'll sing it for you again.

Flynn appeared for a fiddle cameo, introduced by the Melodic as some violinist they met on the street. He later returned to the stage for a strong solo set of favorites from his three full-lengths, A Larum, Been Listening, and his most recent, Country Mile. As usual, his crowd was smitten. "Where have you been all my life?" one woman shouted between songs.

Flynn smiled, and continued tuning his resonator guitar. "Around," he said. (Slick.)

So be sure and look out for all of the above the next time they're "around." I can't speak for Mr. Flynn, but The Melodic plans to be back in America soon on a tour with Tinariwen, yet another wandering band worth checking out.

Here's "Ode to Victor Jara":