On American politics and policy.
This past weekend, 1,000 conservative activists gathered in Minneapolis for the RightOnline conference. The “grassroots” summit was convened by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, who are among the most prolific funders of the conservative right.
A new video by Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Foundation illustrates the Koch brothers’ echo chamber by looking at one prominent example: Social Security. “What the Koch brothers want to do is destroy Social Security, because Social Security is a federal government program that has been enormously successful,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, who narrates the video.
The video shows how the Koch’s perpetuate the myth that Social Security is in crisis by funding prominent think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, pundits on Fox News and CNBC, and politicians like Paul Ryan. The $28.6 million that flows to the think tanks leads to over 300 policy papers advocating the dismantlement of Social Security, which in turn provides new fodder for conservative talking heads and politicians. The film debunks three top “Social Security distortions”—that the retirement age must be raised, that the program is going bankrupt, and that Social Security must be privatized. “The Koch brothers job is to do everything they can to dismember government in general,” said Sanders, “and if you can destroy Social Security, you will have gone a long way forward in that effort.”
Here’s the video:
Minneapolis—This week Joe Klein had an interesting piece in Time about how the 2012 GOP presidential race is shaping up to be a battle between outsiders vs. insiders. Mitt Romney is the obvious insider of choice. Michele Bachmann, despite being a three-term member of Congress, is making a strong push to be the outsider who rallies the GOP faithful against the party establishment. Her appearance at the conservative RightOnline conference in Minneapolis today illustrated why she may be the dark horse to watch this cycle. (It’s also worth noting that the “grassroots” conference is run by the Koch Brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation.)
Bachmann drew enthusiastic cheers from the packed ballroom at the Hilton—complete with a gaudy blue and red stage with white stars—by talking up her opposition to Obamacare (she’s sponsored a bill to repeal it), the financial and auto bailouts, and raising the debt ceiling. “When are we going to buck up, when are we going to say no?” she asked rhetorically. Don’t be surprised if she leads the opposition among House Republicans to any impending deal between the Obama administration and the GOP leadership to raise the debt ceiling.
Bachmann’s making an unapologetic bid for the Tea Party vote, saying the movement represents far more voters than the “right-wing fringe of the Republican Party” and was “just gaining strength.” She asked the crowd to hold up a $1 bill to illustrate how the nation is drowning in debt. “42 cents on the dollar is borrowed money!” she said. Bachmann even talked about the unemployment rate among black and Hispanic Americans in front of the nearly all-white, predominantly middle-aged crowd. And the avowed social conservative kept the focus on jobs and the economy, despite ending her speech by quoting a passage of the Bible about the Philistines, reflecting the newfound center of gravity among the Republican base.
Unlike compromise candidates like Romney, who are considered more electable but have in the past taken positions at odds with the GOP base, Bachmann is an unapologetic Tea Party disciple. “Bachmann-Palin,” one crowd member yelled during her speech. Although a huge oil painting of Palin rested just outside the ballroom, Bachmann is positioning herself as a calmer, saner, more intelligent version of the Mama Grizzly. She seems far less crazy in person than she does on TV. Democrats would be smart not to underestimate her potential appeal. (Though she couldn’t escape a “glitter bomb” protester at the end of her speech.)
The GOP presidential primary is starting to look eerily familiar to the Democratic presidential primary in 2004. If Mitt Romney is John Kerry, the flawed yet formidable frontrunner, Michele Bachmann could become Howard Dean, the bomb-throwing hero of the grassroots. It’s insurgent vs. establishment all over again. As is usually the case, I’m guessing the establishment will ultimately prevail, although the attendees at RightOnline might have something to say about that.
Given the angst about the Obama administration at this year’s Netroots Nation conference—from the president’s policies on Afghanistan and civil liberties to his prioritization of deficit reduction over jobs—there was much speculation about what type of reception White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer would get during his appearance Friday morning. And sure enough, Daily Kos moderator Kaili Joy Gray—a k a “Angry Mouse”—grilled Pfeiffer about the president’s positions on jobs, gay marriage, Libya and his reluctance to fight back against the GOP and use his executive authority to circumvent Republican obstruction.
Things were testy from the start, when Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama has not introduced a new jobs plan to boost the lagging economy. “It is a false decision to say we don’t have a jobs bill,” Pfeiffer responded. “We have a number of proposals in Congress that have been blocked by Republicans.” He pointed to a national infrastructure bank, a national wireless program, clean energy investments and tax credits for small businesses as examples. “You can expect the president will unveil a number of new initiatives,” Pfeiffer said when pressed on the issue.
Also on the economic front, Pfeiffer was asked if the White House would draw a line in the sand during negotiations with the GOP over raising the debt ceiling. “On Social Security, the president will do nothing to slash benefits, privatize the program or change the nature of the program,” Pfeiffer responded. “The same with Medicare.” But Pfeiffer refused to say whether the retirement age would be raised for either program. “I'm not going to have a negotiation with Republicans here on the stage with you,” he answered somewhat testily.
The discussion also touched on a number of other issues, including foreign policy and gay rights. “When will you stop kicking gay people out of the military?” Gray asked, referencing the implantation date of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “As soon as we possibly can,” Pfeiffer answered.
She also pressed the communications honcho on whether Libya would turn into another Vietnam, and why the White House has not sought Congressional authority for the mission. Pfeiffer answered that the administration “went in in a limited way with a multilateral coalition,” and was not in violation of the War Powers Act—an answer unlikely to satisfy critics of the Libya mission in Congress.
Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama hadn’t filled vacant administration posts blocked by the GOP via recess appointments and whether Elizabeth Warren would be named the permanent director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Pfeiffer praised Warren’s “amazing work in getting that bureau stood up,” but would only say that “she’s one of the people who is under consideration, and we hope to have an announcement on that soon.”
Despite her relentless questioning, Gray didn’t get much out of the defensive Pfeiffer, and her strident tone even alienated a number of Obama’s progressive critics in the room. “This #NN11 questioner does not represent the netroots and is blowing a valuable opportunity,” wrote Adam Green of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee on Twitter. “Overall critique of #Nn11 questioner: she was out of the loop on what progressives are doing to strategically pressure Obama to fight.”
Indeed, the Q&A was unlikely to change the White House’s opinion of the so-called “professional left,” or vice versa. Thus far, the panels at Netroots Nation have been largely preoccupied with the Republican Party’s assault on workers in states like Wisconsin, and the corrosive effect of corporate money and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on our political system. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel yesterday about “Structural Barriers to Progressive Success.”) What the Obama administration is and is not doing almost seems like an afterthought.
According to Bloomberg News and other news outlets, the Obama administration is considering appointing Raj Date, a top deputy to Elizabeth Warren at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), as the bureau’s permanent director before it goes live on July 21. The articles are all attributed to “a person familiar with the discussions,” which makes it clear that the White House if floating Date’s appointment as a trial balloon, to gauge reaction from financial reform advocates, the business community and members of Congress. This is not an entirely new story—Reuters reported that "close associates" of Warren were under consideration back in April—but this is the first time Date has been named as a potential candidate.
Date is well-regarded in the business world and among reform advocates, which is why he’s an attractive option for the administration. He worked for Capitol One and Deutsche Bank, served on the board of a peer-to-peer lending company, Prosper Marketplace, started his own economic policy research firm, Cambridge Winter Center, and was a board member at Demos, a liberal think tank. Heather McGhee, director of Demos’ Washington office, called Date “one of the most effective advocates for consumer financial protection during the debate that culminated in the Dodd-Frank Act.”
Which isn’t to stay he’s a better pick than Warren, who remains the preferred candidate among financial reform advocates. He’s still a banking industry veteran at a time when the public remains skeptical of the banks, and it’s unclear if he has the moxy and stature to go up against the $3 trillion financial services industry. He's a skilled technocrat, adept at working behind the scenes, but not necessarily the type of dynamic leader and charasmatic public face the new bureau needs in order to establish its identity and credibility among the public. The CFPB was Warren’s idea, and she’s the most qualified person to run the bureau.
Senate Republicans have made clear they’ll try to block whoever the administration picks to formally run the CFPB, which virtually guarantees a recess appointment. The banking lobby hates the bureau as much as Warren, which means that any “consensus candidate” is bound to face fierce resistance once the CFPB is up and running. Support continues to grow for a Warren appointment, including an endorsement today from the AFL-CIO, which is by far the biggest group to come out in favor of a recess appointment thus far.
Yet the Obama administration seems determined to push Warren out the door at the very moment it needs her the most. She’s the best spokesperson Obama has on economic policy, especially compared to a Wall Street–friendly stiff like Tim Geithner, and has spent her whole life fighting for the middle class, which is the stated priority of the Obama administration. The consumer bureau is the most popular and tangible aspect of Dodd-Frank, which was the most popular piece of legislation enacted by the administration in its first two years in office. Yet the bureau and Dodd-Frank are under attack from the banking lobby and Congressional Republicans, who’d like to return to the pre–financial crisis status quo. Any retreat by the Obama administration will hand opponents of reform a major victory—and embolden them to go further.
Four of the nation’s biggest banks—JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs—are among the ten most unpopular companies in America, according to a new Harris Interactive poll. The public hates the banks. And they love Warren and consumer protection. Who to side with should be a no-brainer for the Obama administration.
The Chamber of Commerce spent $17 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year, far more than any other group, and has an entire division devoted to fighting the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law. It’s fair to say that they’re obsessed with defanging nearly every major piece of legislation enacted by the Obama administration, with financial reform at the top of the list.
To that end, the Chamber recently hired former Bush Administration chief of staff Andy Card and former Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh to lead its new “grassroots” anti-regulation campaign over the summer. According to Chamber President Tom Donahue, new BFFs Bayh and Card “will carry a bipartisan message on regulatory reform out around the country through a ‘road show’ of speeches, events, and media appearances.” Not so long ago, Bayh was a possible vice presidential candidate for Obama and a future presidential aspirant. Now he’s just a hired gun for big business. In a delicious bit of irony, Bayh will spend the summer denouncing the very financial reform legislation he voted for while in the Senate. Whatever principles he ever had are now long gone.
The Chamber’s high-profile hires are the latest indication of how corporate America is fighting hard to roll back financial reform. Last week I detailed in The Nation how the banking lobby is trying to weaken the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it goes live on July 21 and prevent Elizabeth Warren from becoming its permanent director. Today the New York Times reported that the implementation of Dodd-Frank is way behind schedule on a number of fronts. “So far, 28 of the financial overhaul rule-making deadlines have been missed, according to Davis Polk, a law firm that is tracking the rules,” writes Louise Story. “Of the 385 new rules to be written, the law firm says, regulators have completed only 24 requirements; they were supposed to have taken 41 such actions by now.” As Pro Publica recently noted, Dodd-Frank is quickly becoming a dud.
Congressional Republicans and their corporate benefactors would like nothing more than for financial reform to die via inertia. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) calls opponents of Dodd-Frank members of the “Financial Crisis Never Happened Caucus.” Absent strong action from the federal government, the Obama Administration may soon become its newest member.
In April 2010, President Obama nominated Peter Diamond, a Nobel Prize–winning economist and MIT professor, to a seat on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. On three different occasions the Senate Banking Committee approved his nomination. Yet Republicans in the Senate, led by Alabama’s Richard Shelby, blocked his confirmation because they disagreed with his economic policy views. “Dr. Diamond is an old-fashioned, big government Keynesian,” Shelby said. Diamond, who finally had enough of the endless delay and partisan attacks, withdrew his nomination today, explaining why in a New York Times op-ed. “Last October, I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market,” he wrote. “But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve—at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination.”
The absence of a Nobel Prize–winning economist at the Fed at a time of economic crisis is particularly galling. L’affaire Diamond is a perfect illustration of how Senate Republicans have abused and warped Senate rules, which I blogged about last week. Diamond suffered the same fate as other well-qualified Obama nominees, like Goodwin Liu and Dawn Johnson, who Republicans stubbornly refused to confirm.
As I noted last week, of the 1,132 executive and judicial branch nominations submitted to the Senate by President Obama, 223 nominees have yet to receive a vote on the Senate floor, according to White House data. That means that nearly 20 percent of Obama nominees have been blocked by Senate Republicans.
You’d think such obstruction would force Obama to circumvent the traditional nomination process and fill these vacant posts via recess appointments. President Bush used that power 171 times during his presidency. But Obama has done so only twenty-eight times. To catch up with Bush, Obama would have to make roughly twenty-eight recess appointment per year until the end of his presidency, assuming he wins a second term and governs for eight years.
Obama has no choice but to act. If the Senate won’t fulfill its constitutional role, the president must.
On May 19th, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the nomination of Goodwin Liu for the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit. Under the deal reached by the “Gang of 14” in 2005, senators agreed not to filibuster judicial nominees except under “extraordinary circumstances.” Republicans used that exemption to block Liu’s nomination, even though the Berkeley law professor is widely regarded as one of the sharpest constitutional scholars in the country, earned praise from conservatives like Ken Starr and John Yoo, and was named “unanimously well-qualified,” by the American Bar Association.
The very Republican senators who filibustered Liu’s nomination once decried the tactic. “I would never filibuster any President’s judicial nominee, period,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in 2005. But under the Obama Administration, Alexander and his ilk have had a change of heart. Their level of obstructionism keeps reaching new heights.
According to a report [pdf] from the Alliance for Justice:
Of the 105 nominations submitted by President Obama during the first two years of his term, only 62—2 Supreme Court justices, plus 16 courts of appeals and 44 district court judges—were confirmed. That is the smallest percentage of judicial confirmations over the first two years of any presidency in American history.
Judicial vacancies increased from 55 to 97 during President Obama’s first two years, whereas under both President’s Bush and Clinton, vacancies declined.
Senate Republicans used every parliamentary tool they could to obstruct and delay President Obama’s nominees, including placing secret holds on each judicial nominee who reached the Senate floor, even those that had the support of Republican home-state senators. They also denied votes on 13 nominees at the end of the 111th Congress who received no Republican opposition in committee.
Today 53 Obama judicial nominees still have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Of the 1132 executive and judicial branch nominations submitted to the Senate by President Obama, 223 nominees have yet to receive a vote on the Senate floor, according to White House data. That means that nearly 20 percent of Obama nominees have been blocked by Senate Republicans.
In response to this obstruction, Obama has filled 28 vacant positions via recess appointments. President Bush, in contrast, made 171 recess appointments during his presidency, including John Bolton for UN ambassador and two controversial judicial nominations, Charles Pickering and William Pryor, to the US Court of Appeals. To catch up with Bush, Obama would have to make roughly twenty-eight recess appointment per year until the end of his presidency, assuming he wins a second term and governs for eight years.
To fill these vacancies, the Obama administration must move aggressively to challenge GOP obstructionism, which is something they've been slow to do. According to a new Alliance for Justice report [pdf] on judicial nominations in the 112th Congress:
President Obama still badly trails his two predecessors in terms of nominations. At the end of the 111th Congress, the President was 27 nominations behind President Bush and 37 nominations behind President Clinton at a similar point in their presidencies, and there were enough vacancies open for him to keep pace with either of them. Instead of catching up, President Obama has slipped further behind President Bush (now 51 nominations behind), and has barely made a dent in the gap with President Clinton (now 34 nominations behind), at the comparable point in their presidencies.
Yet Republicans, in another stunning act of hypocrisy, are determined not to let Obama make any recess appointments for the foreseeable future. The Senate stayed in pro-forma session over the Memorial Day break, instead of adjourning for its usual recess, in part to prevent Obama from appointing Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A dozen Senate Republicans have asked House Speaker John Boehner “to try to block President Obama from making recess appointments for the remainder of his presidency,” according to Politico.
At the beginning of the 112th Congress, a trio of Senate Democrats—Tom Harkin, Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall—tried to reform the Senate rules to prevent such rampant abuse of the filibuster and nomination process. But they were stymied by the leadership of both parties, who made sure the new rules did not pass. Sitting side-by-side at the State of the Union evidently took precedence. As a result, the absurd dysfunction of the contemporary US Senate continues unabated.
Congressional Republicans have frequently attacked Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) she’s setting up, which officially launches on July 21. The House GOP escalated its anti-Warren, anti-CFPB campaign at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee today, chaired by Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC).
McHenry was once known as Tom DeLay’s “attack-dog-in-training,” a title he more than earned today. Before the hearing had even begun, McHenry went on CNBC and brazenly accused Warren of lying to Congress. He claimed that Warren had misrepresented her role in advising state attorneys general who are seeking a multibillion-dollar settlement with the country’s largest mortgage service providers, who stand accused of massive and widespread foreclosure fraud. As evidence, McHenry pointed to a leaked internal document prepared by the CFPB that laid out different settlement options for the state AGs. McHenry claimed this went beyond the scope of the “advice,” that Warren had already admitted to providing, at the behest of the Treasury Department, in earlier testimony to Congress in March. “We’ve given advice when asked for advice,” she reiterated this afternoon.
The subcommittee hearing devolved into a linguistic discussion of the true meaning of the word “advise,” as the Merriam-Webster definition (“to give [someone] a recommendation about what should be done”) flashed on large TV screens in the hearing room. But given that Warren had already copped to giving such advice, it was difficult to find any meaningful contradiction in her remarks. Nor has she or the CFPB played a leading role in the settlement talks. “It’s simply not accurate to say the CFPB has masterminded this,” Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who’s leading settlement talks for the AGs, told me recently.
Despite his thin paper trail, McHenry was intent on making Warren look bad. The Western North Carolina Congressman frequently interrupted her answers and accused the CFPB of possessing “virtually unchecked” power. Near the end of the hearing, Representative John Yarmouth (D-KY) apologized to Warren for the “rude and disrespectful behavior of the chair.” Incidentally, McHenry has accepted generous campaign donations this year from big banks and industry trade associations opposed to bureau, including $1,000-plus checks from the American Bankers Association, Mortgage Bankers Association, American Express, American Financial Services Organization, Cash America International, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director at US PIRG, said the hearing was just another attempt by the GOP “to try to weaken Warren’s credibility.” He invoked an old saying from law school: “If the law is on your side, argue the law. If the facts are on your side, argue the facts. If you don’t have either, just argue.”
The hearing was titled “Who’s Watching the Watchmen? Oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” but Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) argued that it should be dubbed “Let’s Pretend the Financial Crisis Never Happened.” Indeed, Congressional Republicans spent no time on the lax oversight and corporate deception that led to the financial crisis—and how a consumer agency dedicated to policing the murky financial services sector might have prevented or mitigated a prolonged recession. “Too often consumer protection was the second thought, third thought, or not even thought of at all,” Maloney said. That’s why Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration created the CFPB as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.
“I’m begging you to keep the fire,” Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) told Warren. “I’ve had constituents who’ve lost so much they don’t even know why…. We need your passion and concern. Thank you for syncing your conduct and conscience.”
At the end of the testy hearing, McHenry told Warren: “I admire your service to our government. I do.” He and the House GOP certainly have a funny way of showing it.
For more than two years, Jared Bernstein was Joe Biden’s chief economic adviser and the sole progressive economist on President Obama’s economic team. He stepped down in April to work for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and just yesterday launched a blog, which will be a must-read for analysis of these turbulent economic times.
In his introductory post, Bernstein denies that he left the administration “because ideas that I was associated with, like more stimulus, are off the table… I left because I was frustrated. Not with what was going on inside the White House, but with what is going on outside. The national debate over economic policy is way off track and the stakes are as high as can be.
“As the 2012 election season gears up,” Bernstein writes, “we are poised to have a fundamental debate about the size and role of the federal government.” Yet neither party, he says, is leveling with the American public about the choices we face. Explains Bernstein:
“Conservatives essentially argue we can have it all for less: get government “out-of-the-way” and health care, job growth, investment, upward mobility, would be enhanced, not diminished. These claims are difficult to defend using facts—as opposed to assertion—and part of this blog will be devoted to sorting through them.
Democrats lately seemed to be trapped in a position that amounts to: ‘sure, we have to cut and shrink—just not as much as the other guys want.
There’s got to be a better way—a way to widen this terribly narrow debate.
Why couldn’t I do more to help from the inside? One reason is that in order to move the ball forward, you need consensus, and in today’s politics, that is particularly elusive. And that makes it especially hard to call out people and their arguments. There’s a reason why Jon Stewart can speak truths that highly-placed elected officials cannot. When you’re on the inside at a time like this, you’re constantly balancing the risk of losing the support of people you need to lead.”
Today Republicans are rapidly distancing themselves from Paul Ryan’s plan to gut the social safety net and redistribute income upwards. But the Obama Administration has been faulted by its own supporters—including Christina Romer, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers—for not doing more to stimulate the economy, and for not taking a harder line with Congressional Republicans during negotiations over the budget deficit and debt ceiling. The public could fairly conclude the neither party has a plan to end the recession. Let’s hope that Bernstein’s blog will shine a light on how Washington works—and doesn’t.
The $1.5 billion Pakistan receives in US aid per year has helped the country become well-connected inside the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Based on lobbying records, the Pakistani Embassy paid the law firm Locke Lord Strategies more than $1 million in 2010. According to The Hill, “the firm’s lobbying team for Pakistan has been led by Mark Siegel, a veteran Democratic Party operative, Carter White House aide and close friend to Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister."
Politico Influence reported that in March and April Locke Lord “accompanied the Pakistani ambassador on meetings with House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Buck McKeon, Mike Rogers and Kay Granger,” as part of a bid to “effectively deliver messages regarding the role Pakistan plays as an important strategic partner of the US”
That partnership, of course, has frayed in recent days, as US lawmakers are questioning whether Pakistan knew if Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, an expert on bin Laden, wrote earlier this week that circumstantial evidence suggested “that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control.”
In the coming weeks, the US Congress is certain to probe this matter. “I think that the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location to the Pakistani army,” said Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services committee. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) believes the US should re-examine the $3 billion in aid scheduled for Pakistan in President Obama’s 2012 budget. “Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism. Until Congress and the American public are assured that the Pakistani government is not shielding terrorists, financial aid to Pakistan should be suspended,” Lautenberg said.
Expect Pakistan to mount an aggressive lobbying campaign to defend itself. “We have some education to do on the Hill,” Mark Siegel admitted. “We don’t want this speculation to end up being considered as fact.” He’s got quite a task ahead of him.