Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
Yesterday, Senate Democrats convened the third annual Senate Progressive Summit, a day-long series of panels with the senators and various progressive media folks, Mother Jones, The Nation, Air America producers and hosts and number of bloggers. Greg Kaufmann was there and passes along these nuggets:
Sen. Harry Reid said he would like the Senate to take up EFCA this summer. An aide later said that might be optimistic -- that it wouldn't be brought up until Dems are confident they have the 60 votes needed to stop a GOP filibuster….
Reid also said he was increasing the funding for Sen. Carl Levin's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations so that Levin could look into the Bush Administration's record on torture and other matters….
Levin said he hoped to have a full report on the DoD and torture in the next couple of weeks. The Executive Summary is already available here
Also regarding Levin… since he's the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee it was a bit disturbing that he thought the current plan for Afghanistan calls for 10,000 additional troops. It's actually 20,000-30,000 -- nearly doubling our presence there. Later Sen. Bernie Sanders cited the correct numbers in voicing his concern about President Obama getting bogged down in Afghanistan as we are in Iraq.
It's a been a while since I was a practicing logician in college, but let me see if I can lay this out.
1) Yesterday, AG designee Eric Holder said, without hesitation that water-boarding is torture.
2) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing water-boarding.
3) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing torture.
4) Torture is a felony under US law punishable by up to 20 years of prison.
5) Dick Cheney authorized a felony.
QED, right? Is there any other way to reason through these premises and deductions?
One of the first things I noticed when I moved to DC was that while there were a lot amazing progressives working in the city at various non-profits and think tanks, there weren't a ton on Capitol Hill. Of course there are some amazing, heroic lefties on the Hill, but they're definitely in the minority. The culture of the hill, particularly on the Democratic side, tends to be hostile to "ideologues." This really struck me when I was at a party and a staffer for a Democratic senator derisively referred to Ted Kennedy as a "socialist."
OpenLeft's Matt Stoller called this the "rootsgap" in a smart post he put up on OpenLeft the other day. This culture really needs to change, and in order for it to change more movement progressives have to go work on the hill. It just so happens, Stoller's doing exactly that, working as Senior Policy Advisor to freshman congressman Alan Grayson (FL-8).
The other day, Matt posted, under his own name, amazingly, some video of Grayson grilling the Fed's Vice Chair. It gives you a sense of what Capitol Hill might look like if we could close this "rootsgap."
Oh sure, they'll oppose it. They'll say it's too expensive, that it won't work, that it will be wasteful. Some will vote against it, though given the popularity of both Obama and the stimulus itself, less than you might think.
But their heart won't be in it.
Here's my sense of their long-term strategy. This isn't based on anything other than observation and chatting around the Capitol. I think they'll let the stimulus pass and, indeed will be quite fine with it being very big. Much bigger than it is now: a trillion dollars or more. Because once the stimulus passes, Republicans are going to say: OK. We're done. Meaning: no more money. They'll point to the $700 billion for the TARP, plus the $1 trillion for the stimulus, and they'll say: we've spent all the money there is to be spent. There's no money for healthcare. There's no money for anything, really except the Pentagon. They'll run against deficits, waste and bailout nation.
I'm not sure this argument is going to work - a lot depends on what the economy is doing - but it's simple, clear and intuitively appealing. And if you're a Republican, you much rather see Obama and the Democrats spend money on infrastructure, and projects with expiring time horizons, than in creating a universal health care system that voters will have Democrats to thank for the next generation. The real danger of this moment for the Republicans is structural reform, fundamental changes to the American welfare state, or labor law, or regulation of carbon. That's where we'll see the big league, scratch and claw, any means necessary opposition. But on the stimulus? Not so much.
From Eric Rauchway's highly digestible "The Great Depression and the New Deal, A Very Short Introduction."
As to whether the government should take any action, [Hoover] allowed it might cut the tax on capital gains, which would permit investors to keep more of their profits from trading.
And from a passage on his actions in 1932, when Hoover actually pushed through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Land Bank, which were well capitalized and started using their capital to lend to banks and free up capital:
All these measures probably helped loosen restrictions on credit and got bankers and businessmen to lend and borrow more freely again...But they did nothing immediate for non-banker Americans.
I have a small items in the magazine about the latest updates on Larry Lessig's Change Congress. (Which I profiled here last year.) Since it's behind the paywall, I'm just gonna pirate myself and post it below:
GIVE-NOTHING DEMOCRACY: In the summer of 2007 free-culture guru Lawrence Lessig announced he'd be undertaking a project focusing his academic work and activism on understanding and fighting corruption. He founded Change-Congress.org to help create an online grassroots constituency for the kinds of pro-democracy reforms that would reduce the influence of big money on legislative outcomes (see "Mr. Lessig Goes to Washington," June 16, 2008). But while Change Congress slowly built an e-mail list and raised money, its first year was relatively low-key, at least partly because of an amorphous mission and an overly broad set of objectives.
But in preparation for the 111th Congress, the group has doubled its staff from two to four, bringing in Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, two veterans of MoveOn.org. It has also focused its operation on bipartisan clean elections bills that will be reintroduced in the House and Senate this term. The Senate version, co-sponsored by Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter, would provide public funding for Congressional elections, paid for by a broadcasting fee.
And as this issue went to press, Lessig (who recently moved from Stanford to Harvard) was scheduled to appear on The Colbert Report to announce Change Congress's most ambitious campaign yet: a donor strike. Lessig is urging supporters to pledge not to donate any money to politicians who have not signed on as co-sponsors of the pubic-financing bills. "You can help your democracy and do your civic duty by giving nothing," says interim CEO Green, "which is a perfect message for this economy."
One of the most interesting things about the way the war on Gaza has been playing out politically, is that American mainstream, establishment voices have been far more critical of Israel's actions than usual. The public is split about 50/50 on its support for Israel's actions, and yet if you read the congressional record or listened to elected American politicians you'd never know it. Al Franken and Norm Coleman put aside their differences to jointly attend a pro-Israel rally. (Nothing wrong with a pro-Israel rally of course, but in this case it's unmistakably a pro Gaza war rally). And in the US House, as my colleague John Nichols noted, politicians overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that more or less endorsed Israel's actions.
So it's against this backdrop, that Rep. David Price of North Carolina's recent op-ed, despite its shortcomings, bears reading. It's one of only a few thoughtful treatments of the matter emanating from Capitol Hill. (See also Keith Ellison's floor statement, quoted in Nichols' post.)
Huffington Post's new congressional correspondent Ryan Grim had a good scoop yesterday. Joe Lieberman told him that in the off-the-record meeting with Democratic Senators, Obama told them he would veto any bill passed by congress that held up the funds. Since there's no way there are two-thirds majorities in both houses to over-ride that veto, this means that the money's basically guaranteed. (Let me take this occasion to note that if Congress had been serious about oversight, they would have designed the disbursal the other way around: make it so that the default, if congress does nothing, is that the money isn't disbursed, but allow for some fast-tracked resolution to disburse the second half. But, of course, that wouldn't have soother the markets, so instead we've gotten this kabuki.)
Now that we know the money's coming, how do we make sure it's used well ? Barney Frank's original idea was to pass legislation that would put statutory constraints on how the money was used (requiring a certain amount to go towards foreclosure mitigation, for example). But by the time that legislation would wind itself through the legislative process, the money would have already been authorized. So, instead, congressional Democrats have decided to more or less just trust the new president.
In other words, the Obama administration is going to have a check for $350 billion to do with more or less as they please on the first day they take office. I can't blame them for pushing for this. If someone knocked on your door and asked you to choose between having $350 billion to spend as you see fit, or not have $350 bn, you wouldn't have to think long and hard about it.
But here's the thing: it's unclear to me what technical problem this money is supposed to solve. Remember, when TARP was passed, Lehmann had failed, which had forced two money market funds to break the buck, which had caused full-out panic in financial markets. The commercial paper market ceased to function, inter-bank lending dried up. The TED Spread (which is a rough proxy how scared banks are) rocketed up to unprecedented levels.
$350 billion later, the TED is back down to elevated but not crisis levels. So what exactly is this money for? If it's for foreclosure mitigation, great, but does it require that much money? And couldn't Congress pass a foreclosure bill that appropriated funds for that purpose, along with bankruptcy cram-down. But in terms of the financial system, what's the game plan?
I'm not asking snarkily. I'm genuinely curious.
There's been a lot of talk about the infrastructure component of the proposed stimulus, and whether it's too slanted towards roads, bridges and other aspects of our car-dependent transportation system. One complication is that, in order to make for effective stimulus, the infrastructure investments have to be "shovel ready", that is, ready to start up almost immediately. My understanding is that this one of the problems (from a stimulus perspective) with high-speed rail. But what about metro and urban public transit? My experience has been that they are perpetually underfunded and starve for dollars for capital improvements. So, do transit authorities around the country have "shovel-ready" projects ready to go?
To answer this I asked my top-secret source inside the Chicago Transit Authority. Here's what he had to say in full:
1. The funding mechanisms for transit are perverse--IL funds its transit systems' operating budget through sales taxes and a small amount through real estate transfer taxes. The feds stopped providing operating support to transit systems in 1998. Roads are funded (again, generally speaking) w/gas tax. There have been attempts to realign this crazy situation with congestion pricing and other more equitable arrangements but nothing has come of it. And to recover federal capital dollars a state usually has to provide a state match (and sometimes a local match). IL, unable to pass a capital program since 1999, has recently forfeited much of the federal transit dollars it was to receive in the last transp. law.
2. Connections between operating funding subsidies (state/local/sometimes federal) and capital support (infrastructure) are key. For CTA, under law we have to recover 50% of our operating costs from our customers (it's called the "recovery ratio"). Or, put another way, only 50% of our operating costs are subsidized by government. Houston, Denver, Phoenix all have much, much lower recovery ratio requirements (I think Houston is like 11%). Thus they can "afford" to build out there transit infrastructure because they know they will be able to recover the requisite operating costs through revenue. Having a new line that a system can't "afford" to run is obviously not a good idea.
3. So simply dumping money into capital programs won't solve the problem. First and foremost we need changes in how these systems are funded.
4. That said, CTA currently has about $7 billion in unmet capital needs just to get our system into a "state of good repair"--i.e. our bridges safe, our rolling stock upgraded, signal systems upgraded, etc. That's not expansion, that's not "improvements"--that's just getting it into the shape it should have been in had capital support remained at appropriate levels. So the needs for us is huge. Put another way, we are $7 billion in the hole and it's growing. The real cost to the region (and taxpayers) here is much larger. Congestion, land use, job creation, mobility, air quality all suffer (and conversely improve when transit is appropriately funded). The "death spiral" awaits--given teh recovery ratio, transit systems cut back service to meet recovery ratio requirements, thus fewer riders ride, thus systems have to charge more to pay for service, thus fewer ride, until no one's left.
5. Add expansion plans, and we're talking around twice that just for CTA. We have concrete, vetted expansion plans that are "shovel ready" (at least most of them are). I'm not an expert in the permitting/federal funding process, but my understanding is that roads are much, much easier to build from a regulatory standpoint. In an interesting twist on this, most new rail expansions in metro areas w/established transit systems are being done on toll road right of ways--see O'Hare Blue Line, DC's Metro, for example. The Tollways have been so well supported that they are up and running and transit systems are begging to have access to their right of ways to expand. To me the "readiness" argument is bullshit.
6. Right now we cannot meet our ridership demand w/our existing capital infrastructure. We don't have enough buses, trains or rail lines to meet it. So there is a real need. And of course we'd argue that not only can't we meet it, but from a policy standpoint the region should make decisions that encourage even more transit ridership (like greater levels of subsidization for operating costs, so we can lower fares). Transit is a money losing venture if you look at money put in v. revenues generated. And it SHOULD be. If we asked our riders to pay the actual cost of a ride, we're talking about $6 per ride. That is not only untenable, but exactly the opposite of how we should ask our customers to support us given the benefits we provide. We should find progressive funding mechansisms (congestion pricing) because the actual transaction for taxpayers and metropolitan regions continues to be one that greatly favors transit investment. Roads, on the other hand, are bad investments when looked at regionally.
7. We have had to steal from our operating budget to pay for critical capital work (basic safety work, etc.)--that, of course, further exacerbates the problem.
8 So this is all to say that from a policy standpoint, transit loses v. roads right now. From a funding standpoint, they lose. From a political influence standpoint, they lose (some say because most manufacturers of transit rolling stock--buses and trains--are no longer in US, which shouldn't in itself be a problem). Transit is still viewed as a service for low income minority populations, and still viewed as a colossally bad investment given the high entry costs. Experience after experience,e expert after expert, has shown this to be bullshit, but roads still command the policy and political attention.
9. A recent trend to address all of this is to privatize systems' capital resources---public private "partnerships". This to me is a story that is dying to be written. Who is the most important person in Chicago City government? Next to the Mayor, I'd say John Schmidt (at Mayer) who is crafting and executing the wholesale selling off of any capital resource in Chicago that does (or could) generate revenue. Roads, parking meters, airports--transit is next. The merits of this trend are much debated out there, and most systems outside the US are privatized in some way (London being the most famous). I find this really, really corrosive and disturbing. The social contract is changing around here--we just expect our government to provide services into the very near future, no matter how they are funded, no matter how much they cost, no matter who is providing them, and no matter that the way they are funded is in fact eroding our ability to enjoy those services into the future. Giving up (that's what it is) our crown jewels is not only the least creative and honest way to address the revenue crunch, but it is also giving up the most valuable resources we have. I fear that transit will fall victim to Schmidt and RMD's strategy.
As a general rule I don't do a ton of foreign policy commenting here on Capitolism, but I think the latest news that Israel has decided to ban Arab parties from the upcoming election pretty much speaks for itself.
What a terrible, terrible idea.