Christopher Hayes | The Nation

Christopher Hayes

Christopher Hayes

Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.

Coming Soon: Universal Savings?

Just got off a briefing with OMB Director Pete Orszag. I asked him what part of the budget he was surprised hadn't gotten more attention. His answer: universal savings. One of the central planks of the whole nudge crowd of behavioral economists is automatic enrollment in 401k's. Turns out there's a huge difference between participation rates in pension plans when people are automatically enrolled and when they have to proactively enroll. But as Orszag pointed out, most low wage workers don't work at firms that even 401k's, so automatic enrollment doesn't help them. As part of the new budget proposal, almost every employer would have to automatically enroll every employee in an IRA. Only very small businesses would be exempt. This seems like a smart idea at first blush. And it's perfect example of the Obama folks' policy approach.

Some more thoughts on the budget TK.

UPDATE: Ben Smith has more.

Just Say: "I Screwed Up"

In my column, Never Say You're Sorry, I wrote about Gary Gensler, the Obama administration's nominee to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Yesterday the Senate Agricultural Committee held hearings on the nominee, and Laura Dean was there. She sends this dispatch:

"I will stand up and say I made a mistake," declared Rep. Kent Conrad, with a hard look toward Gary Gensler. "All of us need to ‘fess up." Conrad was referring to the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (of which Gensler was a vocal advocate) that mandated that credit default swaps remain unregulated and led in part to the current economic crisis.

Rep. Tom Harkin had tried a different tack earlier in the afternoon when he quoted Gensler's own testimony from May 18th 1999, "I positively unambiguously agree" with Larry Summers in opposing this regulation.

But no amount of brow-beating from the senators could get Mr. Gensler to admit that he might have made an error in judgment. Gensler's refrain remained that this crisis was a "dot on the horizon;" something no one could possibly have foreseen. Somewhat puzzlingly though, Gensler insisted, "we should have fought harder for regulation" and "for some of the things we suggested at the time." I don't think I was the only one in the room wondering which "we" Mr. Gensler was referring to. Which Gary Gensler was this that had been a soft-spoken advocate of regulation all along?

Better foresight will be particularly important for the next CFTC commissioner with the forthcoming creation of a cap and trade system that, as Rep. Stabenow pointed out, "will create the largest derivative market in the world." The next commissioner will be charged with regulating an entirely new market. Yet while Gensler was quite adamant that a cap and trade system should fall under the jurisdiction of the CFTC, he was unable to address any of the specifics such a plan might entail.

In an argument that he and his supporters ground in personal rather than professional history -- he "brings values," said Sen. Mikulski. "He's committed to our community," said Sen. Cardin -- one wonders why a simple "I'm sorry" is so difficult. Could it be that he doesn't think he made a mistake, that this situation really was unavoidable? If so, this raises serious concerns about the vision of a man who might have to make some pretty far-sighted decisions in the coming years.

The Draft Sirota Campaign Begins

There's been some pretty awesome grassroots mobilization around MSNBC's 10pm time slot, with Facebook groups devoted both to Sam Seder and Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks. Today Chris Bowers unveils the Case for David Sirota.

TV is an absurdly powerful medium. I've been seeing this first-hand for the last few months and still can't get over its reach. Having progressives on TV is really good for the nation's politics, and my friend David would totally tear it up.

Update on DC Voting Rights

Greg Kaufmann, who's been following developments closely writes:

Don't count your 60 Senate votes before they hatch… Look, it definitely looks good. However, there are a couple things we still gotta watch out for: 1) poison pill amendments -- especially gun amendments which we don't necessarily have the votes to shoot down (no pun intended); 2) needing cloture to end the debate. Since we had 62 votes yesterday, odds are we could get 60 again. But here are three votes to watch: Republican Lisa Murkowski supported cloture yesterday but opposes the bill; Republican Thad Cochran voted against cloture last session and for it yesterday; and, finally -- a disappointment -- Democratic Senator Kay Hagan. She voted for cloture to bring the bill to the floor for debate, but her staff confirmed that she hasn't made up her mind on cloture to end debate in the event that it's necessary; nor has she decided whether to support the bill. Now is a great time for her to hear from her constituents -- tell her you appreciated her vote yesterday and you look forward to her supporting the bill's final passage.

Voting Rights for DC!

Maybe. It looks like I might finally have a congressperson who can, you know, actually vote. The DC Voting Rights Act just passed cloture in the senate, 62-34. It would temporarily increase the size of the House of Representatives by two members, one for DC and one for reliably Republican Utah. (After the next census, the number reverts to 435, but DC is guaranteed one of those seats)

It just has to clear a senate vote this afternoon. Nothing's definite yet, but things look good. should be he law of the land fairly soon. Since the president is one record supporting it, would be signed into law shortly thereafter. This has been an incredibly long time coming and would be a very sweet victory for the residents of DC.

This Week On The Hill

From Greg Kaufmann:

As a native Washingtonian, and one of the city's 600,000 current residents, for me this week is all about DC Voting Rights. We know that passing the bill that would finally give us a voting Representative in the House comes down to this: can we get 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a GOP filibuster? On Tuesday we'll find out. Sen. Harry Reid will attempt to bring the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 to a vote. Tell your Senators to support this bill which fell just three votes shy in the last session. One Democrat on the fence is freshman North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan. We need her constituents to tell her to get on the right side of history -- end taxation without representation for DC citizens.

Another huge happening in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon -- the confirmation vote on Rep. Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor. She's also going to need 60 votes to overcome the delaying, filibustering, fearful GOP which is terrified that she will support the Employee Free Choice Act.

The House will take up an omnibus appropriations package for FY09 this week. Bush and Congress couldn't agree so they passed a continuing resolution to keep the government going -- it expires in a couple of weeks.

The House also might vote on Rep. John Conyers bill to allow bankruptcy judges to modify home mortgages, including reducing the principal. Brace yourselves for the rhetoric on how this will drive interest rates sky high and further freeze the credit market. (Although the Conyers bill does have the support of Citigroup http://www.thenation.com/blogs/jstreet/395180/things_you_learn_in_washin....)

It's long-term economic policy week for The White House: hosting a bipartisan "fiscal responsibility summit" on Monday; President Obama addresses Congress on these issues on Tuesday; and on Thursday he delivers a summary of his FY2010 budget which begins in October. (The full budget is revealed later this month.)

Congress will be pursuing some answers of its own about the nation's long-term fiscal health. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will testify on Monetary Policy and the State of the Economy before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday and the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. But I'd say the can't-miss hearing if you want to get a more uncensored view about what's going on -- same topic -- is Thursday's House Financial Services Committee hearing with James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz.

Rep. Barney Frank has some good ideas of his own about the budget, and on Tuesday he will host a Defense Spending Forum and Press Conference. Also expected to be there -- Congressional Progressive Caucus co-Chairs, Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Raúl Grijalva; and Dr. Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress and Senior Advisor to the Center for Defense Information.

One thing you probably won't hear anything about is Rep. Grijalva's resolution honoring Geronimo, recognizing the 100th Anniversary of his death, and calling for "a time of reflection and the commencement of a ‘Healing' for all Apache people." (Along those lines … here's a Senate hearing you won't hear anything about on Indian Youth Suicide. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan helped secure $2.5 billion in the recovery package to benefit reservations, but this hearing will look at one of the effects at least partially attributable to decades of 50 percent unemployment and double-digit poverty rates.)

Other hearings worth checking out: the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger; the Latest Global Warming Science -- with the Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; paying for healthcare reform; Afghan/Pakistan Strategic Outlook; the future of missile defense testing with Philip Coyle; Improving Service and Volunteerism with Usher (yes, Usher) and Van Jones; and Rep. John Murtha chairs a hearing on Defense Outsourcing

The Good News On the Stimulus

So the stimulus is law. Whatever its shortcomings, there is a lot of good stuff in the bill. As just one example: my parents were visiting this weekend and the whole time my dad, who works in public health in poor neighborhoods, was receiving promising updates on  his blackberry about just how much potential funding there would be for some of their programs.

On the politics side of the ledger, Ben Smith notes Obama's emphasis on the tax cuts in the bill. I'm not necessarily a fan, though politically it's true that every single Republican member of congress can now be accused of "Voting against the biggest tax cut in history" come next election." Clearly, this hasn't escaped the White House's notice.

About Those F-22s

Matt Yglesias, Matt Duss, and Robert Farley have all done a great job of critiquing this embarrassing crush note to the F-22 in the latest Atlantic.

But since I did some reporting on this for last week's column (behind the sub-wall), I figured I'd point out something that hasn't attracted the requisite amount of attention:

The first concrete test of the strength of the military lobby and its allies in Congress is the battle over the fate of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Military experts agree that the F-22 is outdated and unnecessary. As Gates has noted, not a single F-22 mission had been flown in either of the current wars.


Despite the encouraging rhetoric from the administration, Lockheed Martin won the first round in December, when Gates included funding for four additional F-22s in a draft of the upcoming war supplemental.

This is really outrageous. The supplemental hasn't been sent to the hill yet, but the draft version contains $600 million for four planes that have, by everyone's admission nothing to do with the ongoing wars. I'm just waiting for all those Republicans who railed against projects in the stimulus that didn't belong there to get worked up about these four F-22's.

A Recap of Last Week's Action on the Hill

Courtesy of Greg Kaufmann:

"There are three Republicans in the Senate who are writing this policy," Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio complained about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "They are more powerful than the president of the United States and the Congress combined."

The bill finally passed in the Senate on Friday night when Sen. Sherrod Brown flew in after his mother's memorial service to cast the needed 60th vote. So what exactly did Sen. Collins deign to allow in it?

For a look at all spending items, click here. Some notable provisions: $90 billion added to Medicaid funding; state aid is $54 billion; $7 billion in broadband investment including rural and poor areas; $13 billion towards public housing; $20 billion for electronic medical records; $5 billion for weatherization; $500 million for green jobs training; $11 billion for the energy grid; $6.3 billion for state energy programs; $4.5 billion for green renovation of federal buildings; $4 billion in renewable energy loan guarantees; $100 billion in new funding for education -- including $17 billion to Pell grants; $2.1 billion for Head Start; $20 billion increase for food stamps; $50 billion for transportation, including $9 billion for Amtrak/high-speed rail; $2 billion for affordable community health centers.

Treasury Secretary Geithner made his big debut… and was panned. His description of the new and improved TARP plan was short on details and long on wind. Some chief complaints: how will the Administration get private investors to purchase $1 trillion of these impossible to price toxic assets from banks? Also, no details still on the $50 billion plan for foreclosure relief. Rep. Barney Frank said it's taking too long and he's concerned that $50 billion won't cut it. At a Budget Committee hearing Senate Senator Bernie Sanders asked Geithner why the Wall Street execs receiving the bailout funds aren't being replaced with new leadership instead of receiving bonuses?

Frank also held a hearing with eight bank CEOs to find out what they did with $165 billion in TARP loot. The machers basically said they were doing exactly what they are supposed to do (see Sanders above). Frank asked them to cease foreclosures for three weeks until Geithner announces the new plan -- Friday JP Morgan Chase sent him a letter saying they would.

In confirmation news: Judd Gregg… good riddance. The guy didn't realize he might have some policy differences with a Democratic President? Not exactly ahead-of-the-curve kind of thinking you want in a Commerce Secretary…. Hilda Solis' nomination was finally approved out of committee after an intense push by labor. A vote on the Senate floor is expected soon and then we will have something to cheer loudly about -- in contrast to the confirmation of Former Raytheon exec and lobbyist William Lynn as Deputy Defense Secretary…. Leon Panetta was confirmed to head the CIA after all the hype about his lack of experience…. …

Other news -- yikes -- the Obama Administration invoked the state secrets privilege in a rendition case. Senators Feingold, Leahy and Specter introduced legislation providing guidance to the courts on this issue….

Senators Dorgan and Bayh challenged the conclusions of an Army investigation into the exposure in Iraq of hundreds of US soldiersto the carcinogen sodium dichromate. They want a more thorough investigation and accountability -- including exploring the possibility of criminal negligence on the part of disastrous contractor KBR.

In Congressional Progressive Caucus news… It was a big week for caucus founder Sen. Sanders and his sleepless staff: he fought for $500 million for green job training in the stimulus which was repeatedly threatened; included an amendment so firms receiving TARP money stop laying off workers to hire cheaper guest workers; wrote Fed Chairman Bernanke asking him to identify the recipients and terms of more than $2 trillion in emergency loans; and fought hard for the health center funding (look for him to also introduce major legislation with 20 cosponsors to further expand these needed primary care facilities)…CPC co-chair Congressman Raúl Grijalva asked President Obama to suspend the border fence construction… and Congressman Frank and the Caucus set the date for the Capitol Hill Forum on Reasonable Defense Spending -- Tuesday, Feb. 24 -- open to the public. Stay tuned for details.

Finally, Pelosi and Hoyer announced there will be no pay raise for members this year. They make at least $174,000 so they should be all right.

Stimulus Deal Reached

So it looks like the House and Senate have struck a deal on the stimulus package. The final figure is $789 billion, which, as many economists have argued is almost certainly too little.

Somewhat surprisingly, the number is smaller than both the House and Senate bills, and details are still a bit unclear about what was cut and/or put back in. From what I'm hearing some of the school construction money and a bit of the state fiscal aid made it back in, while the obscene $15,000 per person new home purchase tax credit was scaled back as were some of the Obama tax cuts.

I'm very curious to see if the House negotiators managed to get the green renovation of federal buildings put back in because that was one of the single most sensible items in the whole bill and Obama himself made a spirited and convincing case for keeping it in at his press conference on Monday night.

I haven't seen the final bill, but based on what I've heard, I'd give it something like a B-. That said, the clock really is ticking and it is far, far, far better than nothing. There's a lot in this bill to be genuinely enthused about, but I'm going to try to comb through more of the details before reporting.

UPDATE: According to the Times, the AMT fix stays in the bill, which is crap. Let me associate myself with the remarks of the gentleman from Iowa

Mr. Harkin said he was particularly frustrated by the money being spent on fixing the alternative minimum tax. "It's about 9 percent of the whole bill," he said, "which we were going to do later this year in a tax bill. Why is it in there? It has nothing to do with stimulus. It has nothing to do with recovery. This makes no sense whatsoever."

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