Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
Congress is back from recess today and so is Capitolism. Greg Kaufmann previews what's on tap:
Recess is over, some big fights ahead -- like the budget, healthcare, and energy policy -- and we'll see some of that playing out this week.
For starters, there's the FY10 budget. The House passed its version, so did the Senate, and now negotiations for the final bill begin. Expect to hear continued talk about whether to include "reconciliation instructions" which would allow the Senate to pass the bill with a simple majority, instead of needing 60 votes. Another issue will be whether to include an absurd Senate amendment to cut the estate tax for the wealthiest Americans.
One of the biggest disappointments of Senate budget debate was the approval -- by a vote of 67-31 -- of a Republican amendment to prevent reconciliation from being used for a cap-and-trade bill. Good luck finding 60 votes to pass any proposal with teeth. In the House, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey will give it their best shot, and we'll hear some of their ideas this week as the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds four days of hearings on Waxman and Markey's draft of energy/climate legislation -- the American Clean Energy and Security Act.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders continue to try to negotiate with banks in order to pass a bill allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages -- including principal reduction. The Senate will also take up anti-fraud legislation on the floor today. Among other things, the Leahy-Grassley bill increases the number of FBI agents working on mortgage fraud, and funds fraud prosecutors for the FBI and DOJ.
The House Financial Services Committee will also be looking at mortgage fraud -- legislation addressing predatory lending -- CongressDaily reports that it's tougher than legislation passed in the last Congress… which is a good thing, since federal prosecution of predatory lending seems next to nil.
Speaking of lending, the banks still aren't doing it. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "the biggest recipients of taxpayer aid made or refinanced 23% less in new loans in February, the latest available data, than in October." Should make for an interesting TARP report from Secretary Geithner to the Oversight panel on Tuesday. (Just last month Dr. James Galbraith testified at Sen. Sherrod Brown's hearing -- Lessons from the New Deal -- that "a first lesson of the Depression is that stuffing banks with money does not solve a credit freeze.") Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Simon Johnson will probably offer some good alternative approaches on Tuesday at a Joint Economic Committee hearing: "Too Big to Fail or Too Big to Save?"
The nukes will be in town this week -- they seem to hang around just as long as the low-level waste they don't know what to do with. Thursday's Senate Finance Committee hearing is dubiously titled "Technology Neutrality in Energy Tax", and it looks like the Nukes will ask for new tax credits similar to the ones offered for clean energy in the Recovery Act.
Ways and Means will be looking into health insurance market reforms on Wednesday, including a public option for coverage. Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley will hold a "roundtable" on Reforming America's Health Care Delivery System. Aetna, Blue Cross, and the Pacific Business Group on Health will be at said round table, among others.
Some notable hearings this week: on Wednesday, Secretary Clinton testifies on the Administration's foreign policy priorities before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. General Petraeus will appear before House Appropriations on Friday, and I would think the Obama Administration's $83 billion war supplemental will be at least part of the discussion.
Tuesday the Congressional Progressive Caucus holds its third "forum on Afghanistan -- "…How is the President's military strategy increasing or decreasing security locally and regionally?" -- which should offer some good arguments both for and against escalation.
Also on Tuesday, former Clinton Attorney General-nominee, Zoe Baird, will be on the Hill for a hearing chaired by Senator Ben Cardin on "Protecting National Security and Civil Liberties: Strategies for Terrorism Information Sharing." (It's a busy week for Cardin, he will also chair a field hearing this morning on the health of the Chesapeake Bay -- the nation's largest estuary with a watershed that is home to more than 17 million people.)
Secretary Hilda Solis will testify tomorrow on "Green Skills Training for Workers", and in other labor news, Rep. Dennis Kucinich will chair a hearing this Thursday on enforcing the rights of guest workers.
Finally, hearings on a "Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights", "Newspaper Competition", and "Secrecy [after] Bayer's Fatal Chemical Plant Explosion" should all be interesting. And I think this has to be a first: a closed hearing for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on "Global Climate Change". Looks like the intelligence community is taking global warming seriously even if Republicans still aren't.
Laura Dean asks:
Secretary Gates tells us: the 2010 defense budget cuts will "profoundly reform how this department does business." Well alright, but whom do we look to to help usher in this new era of military responsibility?
At the Middle East Institute last week, David Kilcullen, the widely discussed "counterinsurgency theorist" presented his book, The Accidental Guerilla. On the face of it, David Kilcullen and his ilk seem a welcome alternative to the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney. An anthropologist by training he advocates (convincingly) for "large scale civil military assistance" with the military serving primarily to protect the population while living among them to allow for more informed and targeted deployment.
The dangers with the Kilcullens of the world though, are perhaps the very things we admire about them: their emphasis on cultural competency and a humane approach, their nuanced understanding of the region.If implemented his strategies would mark a shift from a military occupation to a primarily civilian one. Indeed the very vocabulary bandied about at the MEI last week, "a systemic presence," and "living among the people" conjured images of the more benign provincial governors of the British Raj and the specter of colonialism looms ever larger as the objectives become qualitative and a fixed date for withdrawal recedes.
At present, immediate withdrawal does not seem to be an option, nor am I convinced it should be. But whatever new strategies we pursue, the last shred of difference between the US and former imperial powers is time. Without specific time limits on our presence in either Afghanistan or Iraq we run the risk of reviving a form of government that the world has just spent half a century recovering from.
A reader emails to make a very interesting point about Goldman's plan to issue $5 billion common stock in order to pay back its TARP funds:
You've probably seen the news about Goldman Sachs: The investment bank, after posting $1.7 billion in profits, is planning to pay back its TARP money so it can escape from compensation restrictions.
Last fall, Goldman also raised capital from Warren Buffett, who got a sweet deal: $5 billion worth of preferred shares paying a 10% annual dividend.
The TARP money, on the other hand, is $10 billion with an annual yield of 5% - that's a much better deal for Goldman.
So shouldn't Goldman pay Buffett back first, which Goldman can do with a 10% penalty (i.e. it would cost Goldman $5.5 billion to pay back Buffett early)?
That would leave the firm with more equity on its balance sheet and roughly the same annual dividend payments on the preferred shares. Better for the shareholders, the bondholders and the firm as a whole.
Of course Buffett's money comes with no executive compensation restrictions, and that's the key. Goldman in its announcement this morning said it would set aside $4.7 billion in salaries and bonuses. That's 50% of its quarterly revenues, a higher proportion than last year.
The key here is that Goldman executives feel it is really important to pay themselves and their employees lots and lots of money - so important that they'd rather ditch the great deal they have with the U.S. Treasury than give up the no-strings-attached deal with Buffett.
Maybe they're right: without the possibility of high pay, the business will disintegrate, as the smart people who work at Goldman head for the exits. And Goldman did make smarter decisions than the idiots at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.
Still, it's pretty striking to see the lengths Goldman is going to ensure that they can still pay loads to executives and bankers.
Wonder what Goldman's institutional investor shareholders think about this.
I liked Richard's treatment of the New School occupation. I'm not sure what is in me, or our culture, or the generational attitudes of post-baby booms progressives, but I have a visceral cringe reaction to a lot of protest politics. I'm not quite sure why that is, though I suspect part of it has to do with being pretty skeptical about their efficacy. In my political life it's hard to think of mass protests, actions of civil disobedience playing a crucial role in any recent progressive victories. Indeed, some of largest and moving actions I've been around: the anti-war marches and the immigrant rights marches, were absolute successes as actions and expressions of a collective progressive political demand, but it's hard to say they succeeded.
But it's also hard to think that we're going to overcome the massive power of entrenched interests without some sustained collective form of politics in the streets. The longer I am in Washington, the more I know that to be the case.
That's part of the reason I've been so enthusiastic about A New Way Forward, which Zephyr wrote about here. Right now we have this strange situation in which there's a tremendous amount of frustration, anger, rage, and populist backlash in the country, but none of it organized enough to make concrete demands.
There's a vacuum in our politics that some kind of mass protest movement might fill, but I just don't know a) what it will look like b) whether it would simply meet the same fate as the anti-war and immigrants' rights movements. Thoughts fellow Notioners?
My column in this week's issue of The Nation -- about the paper industry exploiting an alternative fuel tax credit -- has gotten some attention in the blogosphere. Today, I recorded an interview for the NPR program Living on Earth, which should be out tomorrow.
It also seems like the paper industry has taken notice. Check out the memo forwarded to me by a source:
Subject: Help Needed: Alternative Fuel Mixture Tax Credit
DATE: April 2, 2009TO: Pulp Producing Member Company Government Affairs RepresentativesFROM: Elizabeth VanDersarlRE: Help Needed: Alternative Fuel Mixture Tax Credit
We have reason to believe that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) might drop a bill as soon as today that would disqualify black liquor from the alternative fuel mixture tax credit. We need to take action immediately.
Please contact Senators on the Finance Committee (list attached) and urge them to tell Senators Baucus and Grassley not to offer such a bill, and instead take time to learn more about how this credit is helping renewable energy production and the forest products industry.
Attached are three documents for your use. A list of Senate Finance Committee members, a fact sheet, and Q & A document. Three key points follow:
• Congress passed a law in 2005 (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, EfficientTransportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) that was later clarifiedin 2007 (Tax Technical Corrections Act of 2007) offering tax credits tocompanies that produce and use certain alternative fuel mixtures.
• The forest products industry is the largest producer and generator of renewable electricity in the country, generating more power than all the solar, wind and geothermal producers combined. Some facilities qualify for the alternative fuel mixtures tax credit because of the mixtures that are used in fuel boilers at pulp and paper mills.
• Since 2006, the forest products industry has lost 250,000 jobs and shuttered 52 pulp and paper mills. When those mills closed, the renewable energy they produce was lost too. Policymakers are focused on preserving and creating jobs and increasing renewable energy production, the alternative fuel mixture credit helps achieve both of these important objectives.
Thank you for your help!
I called the Finance Committee, and am waiting to hear back from them to confirm whether or not they are considering closing the loophole.
Over the weekend, during a drive to and from New York I listened to Steven Johnson's enjoyable and stimulating new book The Invention of Air. It's about a British scientist/preacher/philosopher named Joseph Priestly who, among other things, discovered oxygen, invented soda and was good friends with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Any time I revisit the Founders, their writing and their thinking, I'm always struck by the streak of Burkean conservatism that ran through many of them. Their fear of the mob (and, well, democracy) and their desire to keep power broadly distributed, but also out of the hands of the riff raff. In many respects the arc of American political history is more and more democracy, wider circles of enfranchisment, preserving the founder's belief in checks and balances, while jettisoning their distrust of the ability of people to effectively self-govern.
The massive exception to this is the United States senate, which has only grown more undemocratic and more minoritarian over the years. Since population distributions have grown more unequal (California has 68 times the people of Wyoming), the imbalance of representation has also grown. Filibusters have gone from being a relatively rarely invoked tactical gambit, to a de facto super majority requirement for all legislation. And the evolution of the "hold" means that each individual senator can more or less bring the body to a halt.
All this by way of recommending this excellent piece by Norm Ornstein on the subject. He argues persuasively that the senate is "broken." I'm increasingly of the opinion that if we want the kind of change we need in this country, the Senate has to change first.
From Greg Kaufmann:
Now that Obama has announced his Af/Pak strategy there will be a whole host of hearings about it this week.
One that was already in the works was the Congressional Progressive Caucus' second forum in a six-part series. (You can read about the first forum here.) Wednesday the CPC will explore the question "Will the policies and goals of the Obama Administration serve our strategic interests?" Speakers include Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell; Joanne Trotter, Director of Programs with the Aga Khan Foundation, USA; and Abdulkader Sinno, professor of political science and middle eastern studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
General Petraeus and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, will testify before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will also hold a hearing Thursday morning entitled "…Achieving Peace and Stability in the Graveyard of Empires". Senate Foreign Relations holds a full committee hearing on "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan". House Oversight meets about "…Engaging Regional Stakeholders"; and the House (Select) Intelligence Committee has a closed door briefing on Afghanistan.
Both the House and Senate will take up their FY10 budget resolutions which they need to complete before the two-week recess scheduled to begin at the end of this week. In the Senate, that means an unlimited number of amendments are allowed, with each one given two minutes for debate. Should be plenty of opportunities to see just how whacked-out the GOP is, and watch Sen. Judd Gregg fulminate as -- according to CongressDaily -- he offers amendments already defeated in committee. (A big issue in the Senate is whether it will use the "reconciliation" rule which would allow the budget to pass with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.) Look for the Progressive Caucus Budget Alternative to be offered and debated on the House floor on Thursday -- I'd imagine there will be some smart cuts to obsolete Cold War weapons systems and the disastrous $13 billion per year Missile Defense program, among other things.
According to CongressDaily, the White House might send its supplemental spending requests for Afghanistan and Iraq this week, with $75.5 billion for military and "billions more for the State Department and other agencies."
The House is also expected to approve its national service legislation and Rep. Barney Frank's legislation to limit bonuses at financial institutions that take TARP money -- even if contracts regarding bonuses were signed prior to taking bailout funds. (Satisfying, but is it legal? Would be interested in comments from people with any insights into that.)
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health holds two healthcare reform hearings on public health and reducing costs and improving safety….
House Ways and Means takes a look at how the IRS can crackdown on the estimated $300 billion in revenues lost in offshore accounts and tax havens at a hearing entitled "Banking Secrecy Practices and Wealthy American Taxpayers"….
Obama's guy for recovery money oversight -- Earl Devaney, a former cop and Secret Service agent -- will appear before Senate Homeland Security for an update on those efforts....
House Homeland Security continues the focus on Mexico -- looking at drug-cartel violence on the US-Mexico border… Senate Foreign Relations has a field hearing in El Paso today exploring similar issues.
Other hearings of note: the media will have a blast and Congressmen will compete for sound bites when former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg appears before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday….
A Senate Banking Subcommittee hears "Lessons from the New Deal" from White House Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer, economist James Galbraith, and others….
One lesson from the New Deal -- support the Arts. House Appropriations holds a hearing on "The Arts" which I'm sure faces plenty of detractors from the Blue Dogs and GOP in these times… Wynton Marsalis will testify as will Linda Ronstadt….
Finally -- yikes -- a Joint Economic Committee hearing on the March Jobs Report on Friday.
A dispatch from Greg Kaufmann:
On Budgets and Europe
Thursday afternoon, I was one of the 18 viewers in the age 3 to 100 demographic watching the Senate Budget Committee's markup of Obama's budget on C-SPAN.
There was actually a great exchange between Senators Judd Gregg and Bernie Sanders that I think 1) shows yet again how out of touch the GOP is; and 2) serves as another vindication of sorts for Sanders.
After being elected to the Senate in 2006, Sanders introduced his National Priorities Act that would have done many of the things the American people are now asking for and Obama is taking on -- by rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent and using those revenues for health care, education, childcare, veterans services, infrastructure, deficit reduction and other vital needs.
He also urged his constituents, colleagues, and Americans to look abroad rather than blindly accepting arguments that we have "the best health care in the world", or "the best education system," etc.
Which brings me back to the hearing. Gregg introduced an amendment (defeated) that would have required 60 Senate votes for budget resolutions that don't meet the European Union standard of limiting debt to 30 percent of GDP.
"We're in such a bad situation in this nation right now… that [the Europeans] actually look good," Gregg said.
"I'm glad to hear that my neighbor from New Hampshire is suddenly interested in Europe," he said. "And maybe we can take a hard look at the fact that virtually every European country has a national health-care program guaranteeing health care to all of their people, spending substantially less per capita than we do in this country -- maybe we can add that. And maybe we can look at the fact that while we have 18 percent of our kids living in poverty, our European friends in some cases have 3 or 4 percent of their children living in poverty. And maybe while our families have to spend $40,000 a year to send our kids to college, they do it virtually free. So I like the idea of opening up the discussion about the pros and cons of Europe, but it is broader than my friend from New Hampshire is talking about."
Sanders had it right. A flailing Gregg and the GOP continue to get it dead wrong.
Six weeks ago I wrote a column about Gary Gensler, Obama's problematic nominee to be chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission
As Robert Scheer points out here, Bernie Sanders has placed a hold on his nomination, stalling it for the time being.
I was in the East Room of the White House last night for the press conference. I was, alas, not one of the 13 journalists given an opportunity to ask the president a question, though I had a real zinger ready (Mr President: don't you think poor people should be doing more to help out Wall Street?).
Anyway, a few scattered thoughts:
1) Not one question about the trillion-dollar toxic asset program. This really stunned me. On the very slim chance I was called on, I had prepared a few questions about the rescue but figured that if I were called on the topic would be pretty exhausted by then, so also prepped a few about the defense budget and incarceration rates. But remarkably, no one asked about it. Why? My sense is that most political reporters (the people who were in the room, and got to ask questions) can't really make heads or tails of it either way. In their defense: it's complicated! I'm struggling to make sense of it, too. But it just seems crazy to me that the day after the White House announces a very complicated, high stakes and possibly expensive plan to remove toxic assets from bank balance sheets, the President is not asked about the details of the plan.
2) Why the president needs authority to take over non-bank financial institutions. I thought the first question, from the AP reporter was pretty good: why should we trust the government to take over big non-financial institutions. I also thought the president's answer was fairly smooth and fluent. But upon close inspection, it didn't make much sense. He praised the FDIC's capability to take over insolvent depository institutions, and their competent management of the process recently. But of course, the five largest banks, the one's many think are insolvent and need to be nationalized are all (thanks to deregulation!) depository institutions. It would seem to me the FDIC can already take the over. As for AIG, he noted, correctly, it's an insurance company and that there was no authority to take it over, which is part of the reason the situation's a mess. But authority or no, we *did* take it over. The Federal Reserve purchased 80% of the equity in the company. So under what authority did they do that? This is not to say I don't think the WH is totally correct to want the authority in advance to be able to take over firms that pose systemic risk. I just thought the explanation last night was a bit muddled.
3) The press' obsession with deficits. Look: deficits are important. You can't always and forever borrow a ton of money at low rates and keep amassing debt. Fine. Stipulated. But I continue to be amazed by how obsessively the press focuses on the deficit and debt. During he campaign, you had debate moderators attempting to browbeat the candidates into embracing totally crazy-ass neo-Hooverism in the face of a massive drop-off in demand. Now you have reporters pressing the White House on deficit projections for the out-years based on very low GDP growth projections. (If growth is as low as the CBO says, we'll have bigger problems than a deficit). Part of the reason for this is that "fiscal conservatism" is a weird Beltway religion (except when defense is the issue). Even though it's meaningless, and, at its core, reactionary (it's a way of saying government is too big), it is just part of the general worldview/frame of political reporters.
Second, there's the problem that we are operating under fairly unique macroeconomic circumstances, what Paul Krugman calls "depression economics." When you're in the midst of this kind of demand collapse, you really /can/ have a free lunch, Milton Friedman's infamous dictum notwithsanding. The press hasn't figured this out yet.
Finally, the complexity of the substance of a $3.6 trillion budget is just staggering. To ask a question about the policy mechanisms and implications on the spending or revenue side of it, you have to have some expertise and facility with policy. Most political reporters don't have a ton of that. (And that's not necessarily a knock. If you're a daily political reporter, you're working pretty hard just following the day's news cycle and producing something for your outlet) What everyone can understand is a simple figure of how much more the government is spending than what it's taking in.