Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
Nation DC Editor Chris Hayes guest-hosts the Rachel Maddow Show Tuesday and reports on the recent BP oil spill which has left those in charge—BP, Transocean and Halliburton—employing the Shaggy Defense. What is the Shaggy defense? In a 2000 hit song, “It Wasn’t Me,” from singer Shaggy, a man finds himself caught red handed in an affair. Yet with each interrogation, he responds with an excuse and a catchy refrain: “It wasn’t me.”
Likewise, the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill has those in charge using the Shaggy Defense non-stop. In a circular blame game, BP pinned the blame on Transocean, Transocean returned the blame to BP. Transocean added that the blame also falls on Halliburton—the company responsible for the cement job on the oil well.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey joins Hayes to discuss his new bill that would ensure that those responsible for the spill will be liable for all damages. Currently, BP’s liability stands at $75 million, which he believes is about $9 billion short. “When commercial fishermen are harmed, when shrimp fishermen are harmed, when seafood processing plants are harmed, when those coastal communities lose tourism and on and on and on, their liability is $75 million,” says Menendez. “That's ridiculous. So, we want to raise that to $10 billion.”
For Tuesday night’s Rachel Maddow show, guest-host and Nation DC Editor Chris Hayes, reports on “something remarkable” that happened in Washington earlier that day. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 96-0 to add the “Audit the Fed” amendment to the financial regulatory reform bill. As Hayes explains, the Federal Reserve is the bankers’ bank and beginning in 2007 when the economy went into an “apocalyptic death spiral,” identifying how much money the Federal Reserve lent out—and to which banks—met a similar, apocalyptic death. In one instance, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke flat-out refused to say which banks received money.
“The effort to combat that secrecy, and to account for the basic facts of who is getting how much money from the Fed, on what terms, has given rise to the ultimate strange bedfellows political coalition,” explains Hayes. “The Audit the Fed alliance includes lefty bloggers like Jane Hamsher, and the über-conservative right wing anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist…And now, remarkably, the Audit the Fed movement includes all of the 96 Senators who were present today.”
By now you've likely noticed the barrage of banner ads here at TheNation.com for my weekly podcast, The Breakdown. We've been doing it every Friday for two months now, sometimes with co-stars (Marcy Wheeler this week; Ryan Grim of HuffPo last month) and sometimes just me and my extremely dedicated intern Lauren. I started The Breakdown because I wanted to get into podcasting, but also because I thought there was a real hunger for explanatory journalism among Nation readers.
I wanted to put in a plug, then, for our new partner on "The Breakdown," ExplainThis.org. Started by Professor and Media expert Jay Rosen at NYU, ExplainThis.org bills itself as "a user-driven assignment desk for journalists doing explanatory work." Basically, it's a new model of how readers and citizens can get their tough questions answered by experts and journalists. They've been cool enough to create a separate page for The Breakdown. Go to ExplainThis.org/TheBreakdown, ask your politics or policy question, and the wheels start turning: questions are reviewed, sorted and ranked by the community of ExplainThis.org readers; then the most relevant and popular get answered.
What this means for The Breakdown is that there are three ways you can suggest the question I'll tackle each week:
1 - Tweet it, to @chrislhayes, using the hashtag #thebreakdown
2 - Email me, thebreakdown [at] thenation [dot] com
3 - Ask me and a community of dedicated news-hounds and truth-seekers, at ExplainThis.org/TheBreakdown.
I'll shake it up and take different questions from different places each week. But through those three channels, what we're trying to do is get a sense of what you want answers to. A special thanks to Jay and ExplainThis.org, who have put in a lot of work to set up a page where you can ask a question, but also have a real discussion with me and a whole community of site users.
In case you missed it, here's the latest The Breakdown with blogger and journalist Marcy Wheeler, about the torture memo authors, and whether or not they will ever be held accountable:
The Breakdown is posted each Friday at TheNation.com, and you can listen right here or subscribe in Itunes. Bloggers can also embed The Breakdown on their own sites.
Let me know any questions (or topics for this week!) in the comments.
For the first time since the Massachusetts debacle, I'm cautiously optimistic about the fate of health care reform. Here's why: In the wake of Scott Brown's election, what was most dispiriting was the total leadership vacuum and chaotic, every-man-for-himself atmosphere among congressional Democrats. There didn't seem to be any hard consensus on what to do next. Some said: break it up into smaller pieces, radically pare down the bill, go back and find Republican support (ha!) or let the thing die. Every one of these options would actually spell the death of health care reform, and one of the most stunning legislative failures in recent memory. To even consider such a move seemed insane, and yet those of us paid to observe Congress have spent the last two weeks watching, with mouth agape, as congressional Democrats slowly raised a loaded gun to their collective mouths and volubly considered pulling the trigger.
But sanity has, tentatively, provisionally prevailed. After spending much of yesterday talking to folks on capitol hill, it's clear there is increasingly consensus on a path forward: As I explained last night on Rachel Maddow, it involves a few steps, but is relatively straightforward. The House has to come up with a list of changes to the Senate bill that will get them to 218 votes (and will also pass muster with the procedural constraints of "reconciliation". For more on that you can listen to last week's episode of The Breakdown.) They then send those changes to the Senate leadership, which can pass them through reconciliation, a process that requires a simple majority. Once that process has moved forward or (better!) is completed, the House can then pass in quick succession the Senate bill, and the amended fix.
Now that's it, clear reconciliation is the only real option forward, we're suddenly operating in this bizarre alien universe where majority rules. So when I read Ben Nelson this morning expressing his discomfort with reconciliation I took great satisfaction in the fact that his opinion on the matter was more or less meaningless. It was always the razor thin 60 vote majority in the Senate that produced the agonizingly slow process of death by a thousand cuts. But that is, in the world of reconciliation, no longer operative.
In fact, now that reconciliation is on the table, the public option has regained a pulse. After all: it already got 218 votes in the House, remains one of the most popular parts of healthcare reform and once upon a time enjoyed majority support in the Senate. Today, Ryan Grim reported that two House members were circulating a letter to their Senate colleagues telling them to put the public option into the reconciliation package, and the PCCC, DFA and Congressman Alan Grayson delivered 250,000 petition signatures to Harry Reid this morning calling for the same.
This does not mean, by any earthly means, this is a done deal. If ten Senate Democrats get scared and back away from reconciliation the bill is sunk. That would be a massive and stunning rebuke to leadership, so this is a true test of Harry Reid's ability to see this through. So far, there's still been a startling lack of leadership both within the Senate caucus and from the White House. (Ezra Klein has a run-down of the latter here). It will also probably be necessary, for procedural reasons, to get Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad on board. So far he's been non-committal, but hasn't ruled out the idea of reconciliation.
So there are obstacles. And if the last year has taught us anything, it's that the congressional process is exceedingly ugly. So much so, that I think it's largely responsible for the drop in public support for health care reform legislation. At today's petition drop-off Alan Grayson made this point forceful: "I think that this endless discussion about process is cheating the entire country and it needs to stop," he said. "We need to go ahead and deliver to people what they voted on in 2008, which is affordable, universal and accessible healthcare."
But there's a very doable path forward, and there are almost certainly the votes to get it done. It really is a question of political will and pressure at this point. That may not be very comforting given the lack of leadership demonstrated over the last two weeks, but it's something.
There's lots of progressive backlash in the blogosphere to the announcement that the president is going to call for a multi-year freeze on "non-security discretionary spending," in the State of the Union.
The anger is totally justified, but I'll let others handle the policy of this. (Short version: it's criminally stupid).
But let me talk about the politics. I'm sure that in the short term it polls well. Most voters don't have a great grasp of what makes up the federal budget and the fact that about two-thirds of what the government does is security and social insurance for the elderly. Thanks to decades of right-wing attacks on Big Government, many people think that most of what the government spends money on are things like food stamps and foreign aid.
That's why this is so inexcusably insidious: because it uses the full power of the bully pulpit to reaffirm and endorse a kind of ignorance that the right-wing has spent years stoking, and in so doing further erodes what little conceptual and rhetorical foundation we have domestically for social democracy. It may be a head fake, the fine print may basically have a lot of loopholes, in which case the policy itself won't be terrible, but again it reinforces the enemy's narrative: that government spends too much on "programs," that defense and "security" spending doesn't count for the deficit and that times of economic misery and widespread unemployment the solution is fiscal austerity.
I wish there was a way to sue for political malpractice, because what we're seeing from the White House and congressional Democrats these last two weeks would make for a depressingly good case.
The Obama speech was about what I expected: on the one hand/on the other hand, I reject false choices, needle-threading "pragmatism." I have to say I find this rhetorical approach increasingly wearying. There always seems to be the implication, hidden between the lines, that only the author of the speech truly understands how complicated the world is. During the race speech, that was appropriate and affecting: there are few people who've experienced race in as much of its full complexity as Barack Obama. But I don't think the same thing holds for war and peace.
The main thrust of the speech was that in a fallen, difficult world, sometimes war is necessary to secure peace. If we want peace, we have to be hard-headed and clear-eyed. Since Obama was positioning himself as a practical advocate of peace, I was curious to hear what David Cortright thought about it.
Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame has been advocating peace since he was in the Army in Vietnam and organized his comrades against the war. He went on to write "Soldiers in Revolt" about that experience and then was a lead organizer in the nuclear freeze movement. In the 1990s he and his colleague George Lopez wrote often and influentially about non-violent alternatives to war and their support for sanctions in Iraq earned them withering criticism from Nation reader who saw the sanctions as a moral abomination. (I wrote about the sanctions here)
In the run-up to the Iraq war, Cortright helped lead Win Without War, conceived of as a"mainstream" alternative to ANSWER and other anti-war groups.
So Cortright's credentials as a pragmatic advocate of peace (whatever, in the final analysis, that means) are pretty impeccable: no starry-eyed, weak-kneed, incorrigible idealist, he! I emailed to ask him for his reaction, and he wrote back right away. "I found the Nobel speech disappointing." He continued: "To use the Nobel dais to justify the use of military force is unseemly. The president's characterization of the historic role of US military power was distorted, and his interpretation of just war theory was incomplete."
His full response follows:
The president asserted that US military policy has helped to "underwrite global security." More accurate would be an admission that many of our adventures have created global insecurity. Vietnam, the wars in Central America in the 1980s, the invasion of Iraq, countless interventions by the CIA--these and other actions have sown suffering and insecurity. The US has supported democracy in some settings but very often we have subverted democracy and overthrown legitimately elected democratic regimes, in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), etc.
The president invoked just war principles but showed a shallow understanding of the criteria. The most important principle of just war theory is a presumption against the use of force, a belief that war is almost always unjust and can be justified only under the most dire circumstances and only if strict ethical criteria are satisfied. He mentioned a few of the criteria, without probing them in depth, but did mention the standard of ‘probability of success.' Under that criterion, the war in Afghanistan cannot be judged just, since there is very little probability that the war can be pursued to achieve military victory, however that is defined.
The president's assertions about Afghanistan did not acknowledge the fact that war is an inappropriate means of combating terrorism. The Rand Corporation study of 2008 on how terrorist groups end found that military force was responsible for ending terrorist groups in only 7 per cent of the cases. Political bargaining (43 per cent) and effective law enforcement (40 per cent) were the primary factors accounting for the end of terrorist groups. The military's own counterinsurgency doctrine calls for a campaign that is 80 per cent nonmilitary. The US effort in Afghanistan is the reverse, more than 80 per cent military.
Peace demands responsibility and sacrifice, yes, but it is built primarily through nonmilitary means. The president mentioned some of these, but he failed to mention that US foreign policy systematically undervalues these approaches. In Afghanistan the US is spending far more on military approaches than on development and humanitarian assistance.
The discussion about deficits and debt in Washington is so colossally stupid and disingenuous that even engaging it makes me despair. But today's Politico so expertly packages together every conceivable Beltway Establishment inanity about "spending" and "deficits" into one glib little piece of analysis that I can't help myself. (Well, I could help myself but was bullied over Twitter into writing about it here.)
There's one big maddening conceptual error at the heart of this piece (whether committed in good faith or bad I can't say) which is to confuse relatively substantial pieces of domestic legislation with a spending "binge." See, a government, like any organization, institution, or firm has expenditures and revenues. Miraculously, it can increase its expenditures, without increasing its deficit, if it also increases its revenues. This is called "deficit neutral" and it's what the current health care bill, in all its incarnations, is. It is what the cap and trade bill will also be. Now consider this paragraph.
For starters, the White House has not dropped plans for an aggressive global warming bill early next year that will be loaded with new spending on green technology and jobs – that would be paid for with tax increases. Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf says the White House focus on deficit reduction could easily kill the cap-and-trade effort. "I think this means cap-and-trade has to go to the backburner," he said.
It's an absolute and total non sequitur! The White House is pushing ahead with it's plans for a bill that won't increase the deficit. And Elmendorf says that a focus on deficit reduction means that this deficit neutral bill just won't fly. Huh?
Now cap and trade should actually be more than revenue neutral, it should raise revenue. (Indeed, that's the central attack on the bill, that it's a tax, ie, a revenue raiser) But in order to get the thing passed we'll have to pay out so many bribes to so many industries, it won't represent much of a net benefit to government coffers.
You may object to government doing the things it's doing. You may think the working poor should just suck it up when they get sick, or that we should subject Bangladesh to a horrific future in which it is plunged into the sea, but you can't say that the motivation for your objection is accounting.
This disingenuousness drives me bonkers, particularly since, as I and others have noted ad nauseum, military spending is simply never considered a relevant part of the balance sheet. (It's mentioned once in passing in the Politico article)
I raised this point in my feature about Blue Dogs. Blue Dogs really like to call themselves "fiscally conservative" but they're not: they're just conservative. In fact, one of their major agenda items is permanent repeal of the estate tax, which would enlarge the debt, and they generally oppose the public option, which would reduce the cost of the health care bill. And of course they all vote for every last defense bill that comes their way. Ask Parker Griffith of Alabama, who recently voted against health care, what he thinks about cutting spending for the military installation in Huntsville.
Fiscal conservatism and deficit concern is nearly always code speak in Washington for something else: sometimes it's class warfare, or just a cheap partisan attack. Most often, when someone in Washington says they're concerned about the deficit, what they're really saying is "I would like to make sure we have a government that focuses maximally on blowing people up."
Harry Reid just announced that he'll include a public option (with a provision that allows individual states to opt out of it) in the version of the health care bill he brings to the floor of the senate. This is a huge (though still partial) victory for progressives. Over the weekend there was a flurry of reporting over whether Reid would include the opt-out provision, or the "trigger" provision favored by Olympia Snowe, which would not create a public option unless and until some time in the future when health insurance costs had not diminished. The fact of the matter is, as David Sirota wrote here, the trigger is simply a way to kill the public option. Had Reid included it in the floor bill, progressives would have had to muster 60 votes to pass an amendment to strip the trigger out and replace it with the opt-out language. There's no way they would have been able to do that.
But with the opt-out public option included in the unamended floor-bill, opponents of the public option will now have to get 60 votes to pass their own amendment killing it, and they don't have those votes either. This means that the opt-out public option will almost certainly be in the final bill that comes up for a vote in the full senate. That's huge, since the house will also have a public option (an even stronger one, without the opt-out provision).
Reid is essentially calling the bluff of recalcitrant senators like Nelson, Lincoln and Landrieu, because the only way they can defeat the public option now is to join a Republican filibuster, something that I think Reid is gambling they won't do.
As I said on Maddow on Friday night, if you can't get members of your own party not to filibuster your single most important domestic policy priority, it's hard to understand why you even have a party to begin with.
The latest health care legislative compromise being floated is one in which states would be allowed to opt out of offering a public option. Chris Bowers lists the problems with the proposal here. Ezra's more sanguine.
I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and the options were no public option or an opt-out compromise, I'd opt for the latter. (I should point out we're not at the gun-at-the-head stage yet). But it's also important to point out just how perverse the results of this compromise would be.
Red, rural states would almost all probably opt out and yet it's rural America that needs the public option the most. As the Center for Community Change points out in a new report [PDF] people who live in rural areas are a) more likely to be underinsured, because fewer people receive insurance from their employers and b) live in markets where there is essentially no competition. In Alabama one health insurance company has 90% market share, in South Dakota, it's two companies. It's under these circumstances where the public option is most needed. In fact, I was talking about this issue with a health care wonk (who works for the government and so can't go on record) and she went so far as to put it this way:
My point is that the public option is probably valuable in this debate, but not for the people fighting for it--precisely for the people not fighting for it. This is important for rural areas where there is little or no managed care in the health insurance exchange (since the public option would be offered within the exchange anyway).
Would be nice if folks like Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson and Max Baucus could be made to understand this.
This comes from Nation DC intern Eric Naing:
Just a few weeks ago, a book talk by ACORN founder Wade Rathke wouldn't have drawn much press attention, but the organization's recent notoriety as a conservative boogeyman has thrust Rathke back in the spotlight.
At an event on Tuesday to promote his book Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, Rathke drew the attention of major media outlets ranging from The Washington Post to National Review. Notably, a reporter from biggovernment.com, the Web site that brought us the infamous pimp and prostitute videos, was there with a cameraman to get another bite at the proverbial, um, ACORN.
Rathke, who resigned as ACORN's chief organizer last year after news that his brother embezzled nearly $1 million from the organization surfaced, chose not to criticize the current leadership of ACORN but acknowledged that the group "didn't do right."
When pushed about his decision not to fully disclose his brother's actions, Rathke said his brother was reprimanded, he stepped down and the money had been paid back. He also defended his secrecy saying the group worried the news would be "weaponized" to hurt ACORN."
Any misstep within the organization might become a threat to its very survival," he said. "That's what's happening now."
Rahke believes much of the vitriol aimed at ACORN stems from opposition to the group's mission to give a voice to lower income people (the pimp in the original video admits his stunt was motivated by his anger over ACORN's attempt to help a foreclosed-on homeowner break into her own house) and he worries that mission is being jeopardized by "a rising neo-McCarthyism" coming from the right."
After the election, ACORN announced it wasn't going to register voters in the future. Now it's announced that it's not going to help people who are poor do taxes. Now it's announcing it's not going to help people buy houses," said Rathke. "Those are huge voids."