Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
With the House continuing its tussle over ethics reform this week, now seems like an apt moment to pause and highlight the simultaneous, ongoing Senate refusal to evolve on issues of campaign finance disclosure.
While House and presidential candidates are required to file their disclosures electronically (enabling anyone to readily search them online within 24 hours through databases like Opensecrets.org), the Senate ploddingly continues to insist on filing in paper form. Accordingly, to see Senate disclosures before they're entered in the FEC electronic database (a process that can take weeks or months), anyone feeling inquisitive must make a special pilgrimage to leaf through a candidate's paper trail--some that run as long as 3,400 pages.
It's tough to defend the absurd system (which requires the government to pay $250,000 for a contractor in Fredericksburg, Virginia to laboriously re-type candidate reports); not surprisingly, few Senate members vocally defend the practice. Nevertheless, while Sens. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced electronic filing legislation last spring, their bill was stymied by secret Republican holds (a rather ignoble parliamentary move, banned last fall, that permitted any member object to legislation while remaining anonymous--for details, see Slate's run-down on the practice here).
In the House….Over a decade after its initial introduction, the Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equality Act--which requires more generous coverage for the 113 million Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction--won passage in a 268-148 vote. Though the vote is a substantial victory for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who suffers from bipolar disorder and was the bill's chief sponsor, resolving differences with the less stringent Senate-passed legislation, backed by business and insurance groups (as well as Kennedy's father), remains still another battle. (President Bush opposes the House-passed bill.) Meanwhile, the House skirmish over an independent ethics office continued, as amendments to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.)'s proposal failed to placate Democratic or Republican concerns about the agency, and Speaker Pelosi again pulled a scheduled floor vote to decide its creation.
In the Senate…After four days' emotional debate (in which the mother of two boys poisoned by toys containing lead testified), members joined the House in an overwhelming vote to overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Senate bill increases the commission's funding, bans lead from children's toys, allows manufacturers to be sued for up to $20 million and creates a public consumer database for logging faulty products. The White House objects to the creation of such a database, but with this week's 78-21 vote, overhaul legislation has passed both chambers by veto-proof margins.
In another development this week--and a possible signal that the impasse over confirmations is lifting--the Senate confirmed Mark Filip as deputy attorney general. The decision to award a $40-billion Air Force contract to the European parent of Airbus (and not Boeing, which has held similar contracts for the past 50 years) touched off controversy, with House lawmakers threatening to quash the contract unless the Pentagon explained its rationale. As the House GOP continued to heckle Democrats for their pro-pork proclivities, Speaker Pelosi declared she wouldn't stand for the assault--which Democrats call hypocritical--any longer. Since the Democrats took the Congressional reins, they've imposed a one-year earmark ban, reduced earmarks by 43 percent and created new earmark disclosure rules. "My patience is running out on earmarks,'' she told reporters waspishly. "We'll have them or we won't have them. We won't spend a lot of time talking about them.''
Meanwhile, Senate and House Budget Committees backed a $3-trillion budget blueprint, which ratifies Bush's proposed 7% increase in Pentagon funding, but allows the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire. Both blueprints--passed in a party-line vote--would additionally award greater-than-inflation increases to domestic programs, a proposal that Bush swiftly responded to by threatening to veto future spending bills.
Also this week, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution that classifies any Bush attempt to forge a long-term military and diplomatic agreement with the Iraqi government as a treaty, and accordingly in need of Congressional approval. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) demanded an investigation into how a multi-billion dollar loophole that exempts companies working on U.S. government projects overseas from reporting contract abuse was slipped into DOJ-proposed rules last May.
Here in the United States, overseas tax evasion enjoys a bizarre degree of acceptance, with some tax avoidance purveyors even going so far as to try and patent some of their fancier schemes. But today's Boston Globe report, which details how Kellogg Brown & Root--the nation's top Iraq War contractor (financed with $16 billion in public funds)--has neatly sidestepped some $500 million in Medicare and Social Security taxes through use of shell companies in the Cayman Islands, should hopefully raise some eyebrows.
In the meantime, for more on KBR's pernicious backstory (involving bribe-taking, charging $45 per can of soda and receiving prostitutes as presents), check out last month's investigation from the Chicago Tribune. You can also read about the Levin-Coleman-Obama bill to curb overseas tax evasion here.
Yesterday, seemingly unperturbed by the recent failure of immigration-as-a-wedge efforts at the ballot box, Senate Republicans introduced their most jerkily reactive set of immigration bills yet. One would dock 10% of highway funding from states that provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Another would end language assistance at federal agencies and the voting booth for people with limited proficiency in English. Still another would block federal funding to cities that bar police from asking about peoples' immigration status (a proposal not only fraught with public-safety issues, but one that would also dry up anti-terror funds for cities most at risk--New York, Los Angeles, et cetera).
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is leading the crusade, with a bill that would impose a maximum two-year prison sentence on someone caught illegally crossing the border for the second time. (That would, after all, only cost the federal government some $44,500 per detainee.)
Last year, commenting on his decision (along with 36 other Republicans) to scuttle Senate immigration reform, Sessions declared that "[he] was not going to support a piece of legislation that will not work." It's unclear how bullying states and cities that recognize immigration is a serious, human issue--and treat it as such--increases his credibility (or that of his party) on that account.
As the Democrats prepare to fold on FISA, this week's comments from Assistant AG for National Security Kenneth Wainstein suggest that what the White House is really after isn't interception of foreign-to-foreign phone calls, but your email. From the Washington Post:
Wainstein highlighted a different problem with the current FISA law than other administration officials have emphasized. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, for example, has repeatedly said FISA should be changed so no warrant is needed to tap a communication that took place entirely outside the United States but happened to pass through the United States....
[But] Wainstein said FISA's current strictures did not cover strictly foreign wire and radio communications, even if acquired in the United States. The real concern, he said, is primarily e-mail, because "essentially you don't know where the recipient is going to be" and so you would not know in advance whether the communication is entirely outside the United States.
"What this means, of course," says Chris Soghoian, "is that while the public outcry has been focused on AT&T, it should have included a few other firms, including perhaps Microsoft, Yahoo and Google." And, as well, the DOJ that allowed Republican fear-spouting like this to proliferate. Ryan Singel has more.
Here's a bit of nostalgia for the past: In 2003, we worried because Afghanistan was cultivating 80,000 hectares of opium. Now that figure is 200,000, and Afghanistan accounts for fully 93% of the world's opium supply. What's a State Department to do? Deprive farmers of their only source of income? Or focus on other issues--like the fact that security's deteriorated to the point that President Karzai only controls 30 percent of the country? (Unless, wait: aren't those pesky narcodollars the reason we're having trouble with narcoterrorists in the first place?)
You make the call. In the meantime, consider the fact that our current ambassador to Afghanistan just arrived from another beneficiary of U.S. crop eradication--Colombia--one fair signal of the State Department's plans.
Why we really need telecom immunity:
1). It's our way of saying thank you, and 2)., More to the point: as Bush put it at last week's press conference, "The litigation process could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance." A grim prospect not for the telecom companies, but for the White House. Glenn Greenwald sums it up:
The telecom lawsuits are...the last hope for ever having this still-secret behavior subjected to the rule of law and enabling the American people to learn about what their Government did for years in illegally spying on them. That's why -- the only real reason -- the White House is so desperate for telecom amnesty.
In a story titled "Gaza Bombshell," this week, Vanity Fair reported that the Palestinian civil war that killed dozens last summer was, in fact, the failed product of an American-backed attempt to oust the democratically-elected Hamas. News that the U.S. had backed such a plan, of course, isn't really news (reports of the U.S. arming Fatah have long circulated), but it should be. If American faith in democracy is that malleable, it's certainly too tenuous to be staking our reputation on abroad.
A press conference Bush held the day following the election said it all. The mood was awkward: after beating the drums for a Palestinian election for years and grooming Fatah with $2 million in the run-up to the election, when Hamas swept the vote with resounding turnout in a contest certified free and fair, Bush was stuck. So naturally, he hedged.
"I like the competition of ideas," said Bush. "There's something healthy about a system that does that. And so the elections yesterday were very interesting."
That about sums up the historical U.S. attitude toward elections in the Middle East: a refreshing, even entertaining exercise to indulge in. But not when results don't fit the script.