George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Schneiderman Launches Inquiry Into Outside Political Spending

This was the most expensive week in American election history, and it’s only August. Outside groups are pumping millions into swing-state advertising, which is targeting Democratic candidates over Republican ones by a ratio of seven-to-one. Much of this air war is being launched by nonprofits that are not required to disclose donors, and enjoy special tax exemptions on top of it. This is where most corporate spending goes—big companies are reluctant to fund Super PACs, which must disclose their donors.

Today, the New York Times reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an inquiry into how these nonprofits operate—and whether they should be allowed to retain their secretive, tax-exempt status. To qualify for that, the groups must have “social welfare” as their main purpose, not influencing elections.

Schneiderman has authority over many of them since they do business and raise substantial amounts of money in New York State. He is asking several groups—including Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and Priorities USA Action, a White House–affiliated organization—for tax returns and other financial information. Reports the Times:

With New York both the center of the country’s financial industry and home to many of its leading conservative and liberal donors, that jurisdiction could give Mr. Schneiderman oversight power over many of the biggest-spending groups.

“Given how many nonprofit organizations are raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and evading campaign finance disclosure laws, any and all scrutiny of these organizations by regulators is a welcome development,” said Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, which has pushed for tighter regulations.

The letters sent by Mr. Schneiderman’s office, part of a broader look into political activities by charitable organizations, went to groups that appear to fall under those regulations but have not filed the required paperwork, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry.

The letters remind the groups that Mr. Schneiderman could, if necessary, exercise his subpoena powers, and asks them to respond to a questionnaire if they do not believe they fall under Mr. Schneiderman’s jurisdiction.

Schneiderman isn’t the first person to go after the special tax-exempt status enjoyed by groups like Crossroads GPS. Democrats in Congress and good government groups have been pressuring the Internal Revenue Service to probe the paper-thin premise that Karl Rove founded Crossroads GPS as an education organization. They have pointed to many of Rove’s public statements, like this op-ed by Rove in the Wall Street Journal just last week:

Roughly $111 million of Mr. Obama's ad blitz was paid for by his campaign; outside groups chipped in just over $20 million. The Romney campaign spent only $42 million over the same period in response, with $107.4 million more in ads attacking Mr. Obama's policies or boosting Mr. Romney coming from outside groups (with Crossroads GPS, a group I helped found, providing over half).

Right there, Rove seems to confirm that the purpose of Crossroads GPS is to influence the election. Moreoever, an examination of that and similar group’s finances would likely reveal almost everything is being spent on political attack ads.

The IRS did recently signal that it would step up scrutiny of these groups, but immediately found itself at the center of a political firestorm. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch sent the IRS an ominous letter this week, joined by nine other Republican Senators, pre-emptively accusing it of acting politically:

“We believe these petitions have less to do with concerns about the sanctity of the tax code and more about setting the tone for the upcoming presidential election, and we urge you to resist allowing the IRS rulemaking process to be subverted to achieve partisan political gains,” wrote the Republican senators. “Your letter seems to suggest that outside political pressure is actually what is triggering your agency’s considering of changes to the law.”

“The only thing missing from the Republicans’ letter is the ‘or else,’ ” said Senator Charles Schumer in a statement. “This unsubtle threat is clearly designed to put a chilling effect on the agency’s enforcement of the law. But this Washington tug of war over the IRS isn’t something Schneiderman is likely to face, which is why his effort is so promising.

It isn’t the first time Schneiderman has waded into the arena of campaign finance as attorney general, either—recall that in late June, he began investigating the US Chamber of Commerce over potential tax fraud violations relating to political spending.

It's Still Party Time at National Conventions

Grand, lobbyist-funded bashes used to be a staple of the political convention scene—in 2004, for example, Senator John Breaux threw a huge Mardi Gras–themed party at the New England aquarium during the Democratic National Convention in Boston, complete with performances by Ziggy Marley and Buckwheat Zydeco and a half-million-dollar price tag.

But in 2007, as the Jack Abramoff scandal enveloped Washington, Congress passed reforms that banned, among other things, lobbyist-funded parties at the national conventions to “honor” lawmakers.

So in Tampa Bay and Charlotte this year, the party’s off right? Not so fast.

Recently, ethics committees in the House and Senate have interpreted the law differently. While the Senate views it strictly, the House has determined that the law does not apply to parties that honor a group of members, a committee, or a caucus—only individual members. So under the House interpretation, bank lobbyists could throw lavish parties in Tampa Bay for Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee, for example, and it wouldn’t violate the guidelines.

This has prompted a collection of eight good-government groups to send letters [pdf] to lawmakers this month urging them to play by the spirit of the 2007 law, and not the narrow House interpretation:

Our organizations strongly urge you to ignore this interpretation of the new congressional ethics rule. It is nothing more than a roadmap for lobbyists and Members to circumvent the rule, and it directly contravenes the spirit, purpose and meaning of the rule.

Finally, we also strongly urge you not to participate in any lobbyist-funded party to “honor” you that is held during the weekend before or on the eve of the conventions. Your participation in any such party would be contrary to the clear spirit of the new ethics rule.

The convention proceedings, and especially the evening parties at the conventions, are going to be closely monitored by the press. Any violations of the ethics rules will likely be broadcast on television and written in the newspapers. So we strongly encourage all Members in the House and Senate to preserve the integrity of the convention proceedings, as well as the integrity of Congress itself, by honoring the spirit and letter of the new ethics rules.

The Nation will be present at both conventions, and we’ll surely be keeping tabs on who is partying with who—and most importantly, who is footing the bill.

Media Help Advance Romney's Lies About Ohio Early Voting

This weekend, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched on attack an the Obama campaign that is unambiguously based on a lie. On his Facebook page, Romney posted a note directly accusing the re-election effort of working to undermine the voting rights of military members in Ohio:

President Obama’s lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period is an outrage. The brave men and women of our military make tremendous sacrifices to protect and defend our freedoms, and we should do everything we can to protect their fundamental right to vote. I stand with the fifteen military groups that are defending the rights of military voters, and if I’m entrusted to be the commander-in-chief, I’ll work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them.

The background is that, while all Ohio voters used to enjoy in-person early voting privileges for three days, Republicans in the state legislature this year restricted that right to military members only. The Obama campaign subsequently filed a lawsuit asking that the privileges be extended to all voters:

Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to restore in-person early voting for all Ohioans during the three days prior to Election Day—a right exercised by an estimated 93,000 Ohioans in the last presidential election. Ohio election law, as currently enacted by the State of Ohio and administered by Defendant Ohio Secretary of State, arbitrarily eliminates early voting during the three days prior to Election Day for most Ohio voters, a right previously available to all Ohio voters.

The injunctive relief sought by the lawsuit is the restoration of early voting rights to all Ohioans, not the cancellation of those rights for military members. One doesn’t need to be a lawyer to understand that—any sentient reporter would get it upon reading the lawsuit in question—but just in case, legal experts have also characterized Romney’s allegations as “extremely misleading.”

Yet many mainstream political reporters are unable or unwilling to discern that a lie has been told, and say so in their reporting. Eric Alterman recently described the pernicious so-called “even-handedness” of much of the political press, and it’s on display in no clearer fashion than in this case—there is zero room for interpretation about what the Obama campaign lawsuit seeks.

Here are the first round of stories from many major outlets, however.

Romney Says Obama Lawsuit Blocks Ohio Military Voters,” from ABC News’s Matthew Larotonda:

Republicans say a lawsuit brought by Obama for America in July seeks to eliminate additional time for in-person early voting allotted to service members in the battleground state. Democrats, on the other hand, contend the presumptive GOP nominee is deliberately trying to distort the facts.


"Biden Calls Ohio Election Law Efforts 'Shameful'" from Time's Mark Halperin:


Republicans are clearly trying to use an otherwise slow Saturday to gin up a redux of their successful 2000 Florida recount gambit regarding military personnel voting rights. Their various statements and tweets are clearly just the beginning of an echo chamber effort on national security and (let’s face it) patriotism that will mirror in faux umbrage and techniques what they have done on the President’s recent remarks on small business.


Romney campaign calls Dem challenge to Ohio voter law ‘despicable,’” by The Hill’s Cameron Joseph:

Mitt Romney’s campaign is mounting pressure on an Obama campaign lawsuit challenging Ohio’s early voter laws, claiming it unfairly targets military personnel…. Democrats say they want all voters to enjoy the extended early-voting period, and not just those in the military…. But the optics may be damaging to the Obama campaign.

Obama sues Ohio over early voting rules,” by USA Today’s David Jackson. (This piece at least accurately describes the Obama lawsuit immediately, but outsources the charge that Romney has launched a false claim to an Obama flack.)

President Obama’s campaign has sued the state of Ohio over new rules for early voting designed to benefit members of the military, saying the extra hours should be available to all voters. That lawsuit prompted claims by Mitt Romney and aides that the Obama campaign is targeting military voters—a false claim, Obama’s team quickly responded.

Obama camp slams Romney’s claim about Ohio early-voting lawsuit,” by the Los Angeles Times’s Sheema Meta:

The suit, which Romney has seized upon to argue that Obama is trying to undermine service members’ voting rights, calls for all Ohioans to be able to cast early votes up until the Monday before election day…. A spokesman for the Obama campaign said Romney was trying to restrict access to the polls and was fabricating the notion that Democrats sought to restrict voting rights.

A good template for how to cover the dispute actually comes from Politico, which can often fall victim to phony even-handedness—but reporter Reid Epstein noted in his lead that Romney made the claim “without pointing to any evidence.” A subsequent piece by Maggie Haberman says plainly that “The [Obama] suit doesn’t actually say this.”

There are much more punishing stories that could be written about this—like how a political party clearly dedicated to restricting voting rights can have the audacity to attack Democrats for doing the same, especially when Democrats were, with that very lawsuit, trying to expand them.

But the first step is getting the facts right, and calling lies what they are—something many political reporters seem unable to do.

August Jobs Report: Modest Gains Not Enough

A job fair in San Jose, California, Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

The economy added 163,000 jobs in July, a notable uptick from the 80,000 added in June and well above the prediction that 100,000 jobs would be added. After several months of slumping numbers, it could mean the slide has been arrested—which is good news—but this is not the start of a real recovery.

We reprint this chart almost every time there’s a new jobs report, but here it is again—a stark reminder that the country sits in a deep valley of mass unemployment:

All year, the economy has been adding jobs roughly around the level needed to keep up with population gains—sometimes more, as was the case in June and earlier this year, sometimes less, as was true in the spring and early summer months.

The monthly numbers are magnified by the presidential election, which will largely turn on the economy, and the employment situation in particular. But ultimately, these monthly ups and downs are almost just static noise—and a serious policy response is desperately needed, and failing one, we’ll just keep seeing jobs reports that are just extensions of a sad status quo. “Today’s jobs report showing some pickup in job creation does not reduce the need for policymakers to implement measures to give the flagging recovery a needed boost,” said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The overall pace of job creation remains modest, and jobs remain very difficult to find for large numbers of the unemployed — a situation that likely will persist for some time.”

Unfortunately, that response remains elusive. We can guarantee it won’t come if Republicans regain control of the government in November—an analysis out this week from the Center for American Progress found that Mitt Romney’s economic plan, with deep cuts in federal spending and tax hikes for middle-income earners, would strip 360,000 jobs in 2013 alone.

Obama has a noble jobs plan calling for investment in public sector hiring and the creation of an infrastructure bank. It would create 1.9 million jobs in the first year, which is wonderful for those people and should be enacted—but 25 million people are unable to find full-time work, so more will be needed.

And just this week we saw how hard it can be for the administration to move Washington forward on jobs anyhow. The Federal Reserve declined to take any action on unemployment, despite professed concern for the economy. And FHFA head Edward DeMarco declined to throw a lifeline to underwater homeowners involved with Fannie and Freddie—those two agencies won’t be offering any write-downs despite proven benefits to both homeowners and taxpayers.

Congress, meanwhile, has adjourned without passing a farm bill, without rescuing the US Post Office, to say nothing of actually enacting real jobs legislation. (It did prepare to consider a bill making English language the country’s official language, though).

As Jonathan Chait argued powerfully this morning, the political system simply isn’t responsive to the problem of mass unemployment, which is the real and constant news peg every time these middling jobs numbers come out. “In the years since the collapse of 2008, the existence of mass unemployment has stopped being something the economic powers that be even pretend to regard as a crisis,” he wrote. “To those directly impacted, the economic crisis is an emergency, a life-altering disaster the damage from which will endure for years. But most of those in a position to address it simply have not seen it in such terms.”

It’s Time for Obama to Fire DeMarco—Will He?

Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director Edward DeMarco. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac won’t reduce the principal of underwater homeowners—FHFA head Edward DeMarco made that official yesterday. Despite the fact that FHFA analysts concluded this week that forgiving certain mortgage debts could save public money, DeMarco said yesterday he would not allow it because of the “costs and risks”—he is particularly concerned that people might strategically default to qualify for help.

This is a nonsense argument—as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pointed out in a letter [pdf] to DeMarco yesterday, strategic default is an incredibly risky strategy:

A borrower who defaults cannot be certain that he and she will obtain a HAMP modification, much less…principal reduction. Therefore, a borrower would take a substantial risk be deliberately defaulting: they would have to choose to damage their credit for years to come and perjure themselves on the chance that they would be found eligible for the program.

Despite the consistent worry of financial elites, strategic default has never been a hazard in principal-reduction efforts—via Jared Bernstein, we see that nobody is strategically defaulting to get relief under the national mortgage settlement:

Few, if any, borrowers strategically defaulted to take advantage of mortgage servicer relief under the $25 billion settlement struck in March…

In fact, the percentage of current underwater borrowers moving to delinquent status, or the roll rate, shrank to 2.8% in June from 3.1% in February, a trend consistent since before a deal was reached with mortgage servicers to settle past foreclosure abuses.…

“Fitch views strategic defaults as an ongoing concern,” the credit ratings agency said in a report Monday. “That said, there does not appear to be any sign yet of a material change in the behavior of underwater borrowers attempting to strategically default to qualify for a reduction.”

But bankers always worry about these phantom defaulters. “This is something you often see among bankers and lenders who view any sort of write down as the unacceptable breaking of a contract,” notes Bernstein.

Democratic critics—who have for months been hammering DeMarco for his obstinacy—are now focusing on his apparently ideological opposition to principal write-downs. “We are five years into the housing crisis, and FHFA remains paralyzed by the fear that somehow homeowners innocently trapped in the worst economy since the Great Depression are going to weasel out of paying every penny on their mortgage that they could,” said Representative Brad Miller in a statement.

In a way, DeMarco is making his position more untenable by opposing write-downs on ideological grounds. That’s not something that can be easily rectified—as opposed to having complaints about technical aspects of the program.

Obama has the power to replace DeMarco whenever he wants. Since DeMarco is only Acting Director of the FHFA, Obama can simply nominate a permanent one. That person would have to clear a Senate confirmation vote, which won’t happen this year (but might be an interesting fight to have in an election year anyhow). Moreover, Obama could use a recess appointment to install someone else.

Progressives have been pushing hard on the White House to replace DeMarco—and now that DeMarco has dug himself in, why not do that, especially now that he has gone through the motions of considering and then denying write-downs. 

Many progressive critics of the administration correctly note that for years, the administration opposed principal reduction too, and has only recently come around to it. So was that a true policy evolution, or political theatre in an election year? Forcing in an FHFA chief who will do principal reduction—or failing to install that person—would go a long way to answering that question.

Congressional Dems Move Forward on Gun Laws

As was the case in early 2011, following the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords and eighteen others in Tuscon, Arizona, some Democrats in Congress are now pushing for tougher gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, this month.

Legislation introduced by seven Democratic senators late last week, as an amendment to a cybersecurity bill, would make it illegal to possess or transfer high-volume ammunition, like the high-capacity clip used by the Aurora shooter, or gun belts and bandoliers. Senators Frank Lautenberg, Barbara Boxer, Jack Reed, Robert Menendez, Kirsten Gillibrand, Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein sponsored the legislation. (It’s identical to stand-alone legislation introduced by Lautenberg last week).

It’s really hard to get even sensible gun restrictions through Congress, as we recently noted, but what’s particularly interesting about this bill even if it doesn’t pass is that Schumer is behind it. Aside from being the messaging point-person for Senate Democrats, Schumer’s evolving positions on guns have been representative of the larger Democratic Party evolution. As National Journal notes, Schumer went from aggressively pushing gun control legislation in the 1980s and 90s, to becoming “a key architect of an electoral strategy through which Democrats surrendered any attempt to push gun control in a successful effort to pick up seats in rural states and districts.”

Schumer took to the Senate floor last week and perhaps tested out a new party message on gun control: that the situation is out of control, and everyone should at least agree on some common-sense reforms:

Schumer said on Thursday that liberals for decades have read the Second Amendment “through a pinhole” despite backing broad interpretations of constitutional rights, such as due process. That has lead gun-rights advocates to reasonably conclude that Democrats’ call for some restrictions “was a smoke screen” for an effort to “take away your gun,” Schumer said.

To rekindle efforts to pass “rational laws on guns,” gun-control supporters should “make it clear once and for all that that is not our goal” by affirming “that there is right to bear arms just like there’s a right to free speech and others,” Schumer said.

“Once we establish that it’s in the Constitution, it’s part of the American way of life even though some don’t like it; once we establish that basic paradigm that no one wants to abolish guns for everybody…then maybe we can begin the other side of the dialogue,” Schumer said.

This is an extremely small step, but notably a bit further than President Obama is willing to go. He endorsed this rhetorical frame in a speech last week, saying that banning assault weapons “shouldn’t be controversial” and “should be common sense.” But the White House later said it still wouldn’t call for any new gun laws, and has not taken a position on the Democratic bill in the Senate.

EMILY’s List Creates a Firestorm in a Connecticut House Race

EMILY’s List, the political action committee that aims to elect pro-choice, Democratic female candidates to office, has noble goals—but has occasionally raised progressive anger for supporting moderate Democrats over far more liberal candidates. Such was the case in 2008 in Tennessee, where EMILY’s List candidate Nikki Tinker, a Blue Dog and former aide to Harold Ford Jr., ran a vaguely anti-Semitic primary campaign against Representative Steve Cohen, who had a very strong record on women’s rights. (EMILY’s List distanced itself from the attacks immediately, but did not withdraw the endorsement).

A similar fracture on the left is opening up again this summer in Connecticut, where EMILY’s List has endorsed Elizabeth Esty in the Fifth District primary against Chris Donovan—and is using some well-worn conservative attack lines against him.

Donovan is the speaker of the Connecticut House with a strong progressive record, and at times battled with Esty, a former state House member herself. For example, Donovan helped lead the fight for Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation paid sick leave law, while Esty voted against it.

This week, Donovan’s campaign put out an ad where he tells the camera, “These days, some people are afraid to be called liberal or progressive,” but “I’m proud of my record”:

There’s a lot to attack Donovan over —it would be an understatement to say he’s a flawed candidate, as the FBI has now arrested six people for making “conduit contributions” to Donovan’s campaigns, meaning they hid donations with third parties, and where the real purpose was influencing legislation. Donovan has not been charged, but is listed as “Public Official Number 1” in the indictments. Two people quoted in the indictments suggest Donovan was briefed on the scheme.

But the left blogosphere is up in arms over a July 17 EMILY’s List press release, about an as-yet unreleased mailer, which levels a different sort of charge against him—one that uses distinctly right-wing framing. It accuses him of being a “tax-raiser” and heralds Esty’s resume of “responsible budgeting.”

In 2009, Esty and Donovan were locked in a budget battle—Donovan’s version of the state budget didn’t touch state Medicaid funding nor education funding, and asked for a millionaire’s tax. Esty’s budget proposal, meanwhile, cut Medicaid and Husky health funding by $146 million, cut higher education by $54 million and raises taxes on millionaires at a lower rate than Donovan--her proposal would collect $736.7 million less over two years from top earners.* 

This is the sort of “responsible budgeting” normally heralded by Republicans in Washington—deep cuts to the safety net and education with little or no buy-in from the wealthy. With newly elected members of the House almost sure to take on massive votes on the Bush tax cuts and budget sequestration as soon as they arrive in Washington, it’s truly crucial what Democrats headed there believe.

Jen Bluestein, an EMILY’s List spokesperson, told me that “Our description of Elizabeth Esty as committed to responsible budgeting is a description of her priorities in the past and in the future.” I asked if that was inclusive of the 2009 budget proposal, to which she responded, “Sure.”

Bluestein added, however, that the 2011 budget heralded by Donovan wasn’t particularly progressive. “The budget raised taxes on middle-class families at a higher rate than it did millionaires. The budget raised the sales tax, which as you know is a regressive tax. The budget slashed a property tax credit that was only available to folks with income under a certain amount,” she said. “So these are all ways in which, factually speaking, the budget was tough on the middle class.”

That’s true, though with some important caveats. Bloomberg characterized the 2011 budget’s tax provisions as making the state’s income tax “more progressive.” That’s because it created six tax brackets instead of three. Bluestein is correct, however, that the rates for $50,000-and-up earners increased to 5.5 from 5 percent, while the rates on millionaires saw a smaller increase, going from 6.5 to 6.7. Sales taxes are indeed regressive, though it should be noted that the budget levied additional sales taxes on $1,000-plus “luxury” items like clothes and boats.

In the end, there isn’t a ton of debate that Donovan is a much more progressive candidate than Esty, which is what’s irritating many liberals about the EMILY’s List endorsement. “I dearly want to see more women in elective office. But when there is a real progressive in the race, I would no more support a ConservaDem like Esty than I would support Michele Bachman,” wrote Digby this week. “And there is a real progressive in the race—Chris Donovan—the candidate Emily’s List and Elizabeth Esty are trying to smear with the most hackneyed of all Republican inspired attacks.”

EMILY’s List officials, meanwhile, stressed to me what the group’s priorities are at the end of the day. “The mission of EMILY’s list is to elect pro-choice Democratic women,” said spokesperson Jess McIntosh. “That is what we do.”

*An earlier version of this story said Esty's proposal had "no millionaire's tax." It does raise rates on top earners, just at a lower rate than Donovan.

Obama and Romney Talk Gun Control: Is It All Just Panders and Lies?

An emerging frame in the presidential race: President Obama makes hopeful, progressive policy statements, but ones that don’t actually match his administration’s actions during the first term. (For example, while the president is talking a great game on tax justice now, he agreed in 2010 to extend all the Bush rates, and reportedly tried again during the debt ceiling negotiations to make them permanent.) Mitt Romney, meanwhile, just lies about the policy in question. (See here, here, here and here).

In the emerging debate on gun control—and specifically, whether it’s acceptable policy to allow assault rifles be sold freely in this country—we see the two candidates falling into this framework once again.

Last night, addressing the National Urban League Convention in New Orleans, Obama made his most aggressive comments as president about gun control—and seemed to call for a renewal of the assault weapons ban:

I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation—that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.

But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals—that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily.

These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense. So I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction—not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe, from improving mental health services for troubled youth to instituting more effective community policing strategies.

This is encouraging. But it’s important to note that Obama also campaigned on renewing the assault weapons ban in 2008, and then quite literally said nothing about it until last night—even after prominent Congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation banning assault weapons in the wake of the 2011 Tucson shootings. In fact, Obama expanded gun rights as president, signing a credit card reform bill that also allowed people to carry concealed firearms in national parks.

So were last night’s comments the beginning of a new and earnest push to ban assault weapons, or was it more empty election-year pandering? Honest observers are forced to wonder.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was asked last night in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams about the fact that deadly weapons are so freely and legally available in America. Instead of grappling with the issue—and remember, Romney signed an assault weapons ban in Massachusetts—he simply lied and pretended that it’s not actually legal to have those weapons:

Well this person shouldn’t have had any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices and it was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them. And so we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won’t. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.

That is categorically false—the Aurora shooter bought all his weapons legally. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul lamely tried to cover Romney’s misdirection in an e-mail to National Journal, in which she argued “Romney was referring to the bombs the shooter set in his apartment, which police found and disarmed after the shooting occurred.” That’s plainly not what Romney meant (he said “any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices”), and virtually nobody is talking about bomb-control legislation, while everyone is talking about gun control. (Note also, Holmes purchased legal materials to make illegal bombs.) It seems a fair assessment that Romney was avoiding taking a stand on a difficult policy question by simply asserting that it doesn’t exist.

Republicans Want to Freeze Government Regulation—Forever?

Republicans are pushing a very dangerous bill in the House of Representatives this week that would freeze much of the federal government’s regulatory power until the unemployment rate reaches 6 percent. Well, that’s what they say anyway—an embarrassing error (we hope) in their bill would make the rollback virtually permanent.

The “Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act” is yet another attempt by Congressional Republicans to use ostensible job creation as a gloss for rolling back government protections. Naturally, the problem with the economy today is that demand is insufficient—companies are posting record profits, and our current malaise is not an issue of corporations being over-regulated but rather lacking strong markets to sell products.

Rolling back regulations won’t create new jobs, as even Bruce Bartlett, an economic adviser to Ronald Reagan, has said. But beyond failing to stimulate employment, this “Red Tape” bill would halt a number of crucial regulations during tough times for many Americans. Namely, it would:

  • prevent annual updates for Medicare providers, including hospitals, which could threaten elder care;

  • block anything done by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or other federal agencies to protect Americans from abuses by mortgage companies, credit card companies, debt collectors and other financial firms;

  • block implementation of looming tougher carbon-emission standards;

  • and prevent the Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2010 from being finalized, which aims to help veterans with home loans, among other things, and helps injured veterans get special housing and medical benefits.

Republicans say all of these regulations, and many more, should be halted until unemployment reaches 6 percent. But the text of their bill, as passed out of the Rules Committee this month, would actually permanently entrench the freeze. In what we will charitably assume for now was an error, since it doesn’t line up with any public statements about the legislation, the bill text actually says the government can’t start regulating again until employment reaches 6 percent—that is, until unemployment reaches 94 percent.

(b) DETERMINATION.—The Secretary of Labor shall submit a report to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget when the Secretary determines that the Bureau of Labor Statistics average of monthly employment rates for any quarter beginning after the date of the enactment of this Act is equal to or less than 6.0 percent.

This is a pretty embarrassing and central mistake in what the US House of Representatives is treating as a “marquee” bill this week. Of course, if this really is an attempt stop all regulations forever—while simultaneously making the federal government look hapless and helpless—then mission accomplished.

Five Crazy Attempts to Weaken Federal Gun Laws

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The consensus among most analysts is that the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, are unlikely to change current gun laws—that, despite the bloodshed and the outrage, our statues aren’t up for radical reconsideration.

But that’s not necessarily accurate—in fact, our existing gun laws are poised to get much weaker. In the current Congress and the one before it, pro-gun legislators have proposed and passed a variety of truly shocking measures that would weaken what laws are currently on the books—and remember, President Obama is only willing to enforce “existing law,” whatever that might be.

Here are five of the most craven gun bills in the 111th and 112th Congresses:

More guns for veterans with mental issues. In October, the House passed HR 2349, the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2011. The bill, which is awaiting action in the Senate, contains a provision introduced by Representative Danny Rehberg of Montana that would forbid the Department of Veterans’ Affairs “from determining a beneficiary to be mentally incompetent for the purposes of gun control, unless such a determination were made by a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority based upon a finding that the beneficiary posed a danger to himself or others.” In other words, the VA would no longer be able to alert federal authorities that a veteran is mentally unfit to own guns, unless they are able to get a judge to certify it. Currently, professionals at the VA simply make the determination and pass it on to the FBI.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of May 1, 2011, there were 130,886 files in the national gun-check database’s mental-defective file, which had been referred to the FBI by the VA. This means that in the coming years, if Rehberg’s provision passes, tens of thousands of veterans whom the VA considers unsuitable to have weapons would be able to buy them.

More guns for suspected terrorists. There are many things that will disqualify you from buying a gun—if you’re a convicted felon, you won’t pass a background check. But if you’re on the federal government’s watch list of terror suspects, you will pass the background check just fine. In 2010, in fact, 247 people suspected of ties to terrorism passed background checks and purchased weapons.

Senator Frank Lautenberg has repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would make one’s presence on a terror list a disqualifier for buying guns, and has received support from the Bush and Obama Justice Departments. But pro-gun legislators have thwarted the bill every time.

There are, of course, very legitimate civil libertarian concerns with the arbitrary system by which the federal government creates the terror watch list. But Republicans generally take it very seriously—and so their opposition to Lautenberg’s bills truly speaks to the depth of pro-gun sentiments in Congress.

Stepping on states with tougher laws. The House also passed a bill last fall that would essentially establish a lowest-common-denominator for concealed-carry permits. (It awaits action in the Senate, where in the last Congress, a similar measure sponsored by Senator John Thune was narrowly defeated).

HR 822, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011, basically says that states with tough laws on concealed-carry can’t enforce them on people who come there from other states with weak laws.

Thirty-eight states have “shall issue” laws, which means that a concealed-carry permit must be issued to anyone who applies and meets the criteria—which varies from state to state. (Some require mental health checks, for example, while others don’t). Other states have “may issue” laws, where state and local authorities have much more discretion.

Many states with tough gun laws don’t honor concealed carry permits from states that basically rubber-stamp permits—but HR 822 would require they do.

Notably, when the House Committee on the Judiciary considered this bill, Democrats tried to attach a number of amendments that would at least deny concealed-carry permits to certain groups: persons on terrorist watch lists, sex offenders, stalkers, drug traffickers to minors, and assailants of police officers. Republicans defeated each amendment.

More guns in public housing. Gun violence is tightly concentrated in poor, urban areas, which makes a bill passed by the House Financial Services Committee in 2009 particularly heinous—a successful amendment to the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act would forbid federal authorities from prohibiting firearm possession in public housing complexes.

Hamstringing the ATF. It’s well-known that pro-gun legislators have prevented the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from having a director since 2004. But in the past two Congresses, legislators have further tied the hands of the ATF in all sorts of ways. (And if you think the furor over the bureau’s Fast & Furious operation isn’t part of that effort, you aren’t paying attention.)

In its budget requests, the Obama administration has proposed the removal of several restrictions placed on ATF funding in 2004. But not even the Democratic-controlled Senate would oblige, and the restrictions remain in place. The funding restrictions:

    prohibit the use of any funding appropriated for ATF to disclose firearms trace or multiple handgun sales report data for any purpose other than supporting “bona fide” criminal investigation or agency licensing proceedings,

    prohibit the use of any funding appropriated for ATF to issue new regulations that would require licensed dealers to conduct physical inventories of their businesses, and

    require the next-day destruction of approved Brady background check records.

In addition to preserving these riders, in April the House passed a FY2013 appropriations bill that would also forbid the ATF from:

    Altering the regulatory definition of “curios and relics,”

    requiring federally licensed gun dealers to conduct physical inventories, or

    revoking a federal firearms license for lack of business activity

These rules mainly help protect large gun dealers, allowing them to distribute firearms under decreased regulation if they are labeled an antique, and protecting them from examination of their business records.

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