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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

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

SEC Commissioner Backs More Disclosure on Political Spending

Among the many lines of attack campaign finance reformers have opened on the post–Citizens United world of unlimited, dark corporate money, one of the most interesting involves shareholder disclosure. The argument is that if corporations are spending massive sums from their own coffers to influence politics, then shareholders should at least know what the money is going towards. In his opinion in Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy erroneously assumed this was already law—but it isn’t.

Corporations benefit from secret giving because it obscures the true goals of many seemingly earnest political advertisements; an ad criticizing a candidate for supporting health care reform would seem much less convincing people knew for certain it was funded by Aetna. If shareholders were able to discover what kind of electioneering the corporation purchased, that would push corporate spending into the daylight.

Public Citizen has been urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose political donations, and today it picked up an important endorsement—from a current SEC commissioner. At an “SEC Speaks” event in Washington today, commissioner Luis Aguilar said that “investors are not receiving adequate disclosure, and as the investor’s advocate, the commission should act swiftly to rectify the situation.”

Lisa Gilbert, who’s been leading the push from Public Citizen, immediately praised the remarks. “Corporations generate massive profits, in part because of investments by their shareholders,” she said. “And corporations’ new license to spend—a gift in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—could have real consequences to investors.”

If the White House is serious about campaign finance reform—as it claimed to be when announcing it would seek Super PAC donations—it could get behind this push. Similarly, another way to force companies into disclosure would be to issue a federal rule that any corporation with a government contract must reveal its political funding efforts. The administration drafted such a rule in the spring, but Obama has yet to sign it.

Michigan Tree Experts Stumped by Romney Claims

Twice in four days, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has quite bizarrely praised the size of trees in Michigan, which is holding its primary next week. “A little history—I was born and raised here. I love the state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height,” he said on Tuesday. This morning in Detroit, he repeated the line: “This feels good, being back in Michigan,” Romney said. “You know, the trees are the right height.”

The political world seems flummoxed at the quote, on both the left and right. So I called the Arboriculture Society of Michigan for some guidance. They are the foremost tree group in Michigan—a coalition of arborists, foresters, professional tree climbers and academics “interested in all aspects of arboriculture and the health and care of Michigan’s trees.”

Unfortunately, they were not much help. “I’m not sure what it means, to be honest with you,” said Nancy Carpenter, ASM’s executive director. “They vary. It depends on the tree; the white pine goes over 100 feet tall. There are others that don’t grow as tall.”

Carpenter did note, however, that she thought she heard the line before, “when I was a little girl, and [Romney’s] father was governor.” She added that her group will not be making any presidential endorsements.  

Peter King Defends NYPD Monitoring, Plans More Hearings on Islam

Appearing on WCBS in New York this morning, Representative Peter King offered a strong defense of NYPD’s spying on mosques and Muslim businesses and student groups in several states. Criticism of the recently revealed program has intensified in recent days, but King said he was proud of the police department.

“[Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly and the NYPD should get a medal for what they are doing,” he said. “This is good police work. If you are going after radical Muslims you don’t go to Ben’s Kosher Deli.”

This is perhaps not surprising coming from the man who held highly controversial Capitol Hill hearings into Muslim Americans last year, which many people saw as essentially profiling by public relations; his colleague, Representative Keith Ellison invoked the specter of Joe McCarthy in criticizing King’s efforts and said they served to “vilify” Muslims.

But, alas, King announced last week that he would hold more hearings into domestic radicalization among Muslim Americans in the coming year. “The series of radicalization hearings I convened last March has been very productive,” King said in a statement. “I will definitely continue the hearings in 2012.”

This is a good time to flag a recent study by Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and member of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. His comprehensive examination of crime statistics found that terrorism-related incidents by Muslim Americans has declined markedly, and that Muslim-Americans represent “a minuscule threat to public safety.” He wrote:

The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim American terrorism would escalate. The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.

Repeated alerts by government officials maybe issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

If King calls Kurzman to testify at his hearings I’ll eat my hat, but it’s possible Democrats on the committee could arrange for his appearance. He would provide a substantive counterweight to King’s typically anecdote-driven hysteria. Last week the FBI foiled a plot in which a Moroccan man wanted to bomb the US Capitol—you can bet King will give that episode a prominent role at his hearings.  

Denied a Seat at Issa’s Hearing, Georgetown Student Has Her Day on the Hill

Last week, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee held a now famous hearing on contraception, in which the first panel consisted of five men and no women. Issa denied a request by committee Democrats to hear from Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who was going to talk about being denied access to birth control by the Jesuit university; she had a powerful story, for example, about a friend who needed birth control to control ovarian cysts, was unable to get it and ended up losing an ovary.

Issa said that Fluke was not “appropriate and qualified” as a witness, but Democrats felt otherwise and held an unofficial hearing this morning on Capitol Hill that featured testimony exclusively from Fluke.

Fluke spoke about the need for women to have access to birth control and repeatedly illustrated the tragedy of denial:

This is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends: a woman’s reproductive healthcare isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority. One student told us that she knew the birth control wasn’t covered, and she assumed that’s how Georgetown's insurance handled all of women's sexual healthcare, so when she was raped, she didn’t go to the doctor even to be examined or tested for sexually transmitted infections because she thought insurance wasn’t going to cover something like that, something related to a woman’s reproductive health. As one student put it, “This policy communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs.” These are not feelings that male fellow students experience. And they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.

You can watch the entire hearing here. It’s about an hour long, and alternately informative, personal and sad:

 

Senate Democrats Pressure FEC on Super PACs

One of my favorite facts about campaign finance, which illustrates both the fecklessness of the Federal Election Commission and the free-for-all of the current terrain, is that the FEC has not issued one single rule on Super PACs. Ever. Spending by outside groups has quadrupled since the 2006 election, and Super PACs are leading the way in a post-–Citizens United world of unrestrained corporate donations—and yet the government body charged with electoral fairness hasn’t had a thing to say about it. (You might actually call this one of my least favorite facts about campaign finance).

Progressive groups have already forced the White House to explain why it hasn’t forced new members onto the FEC, which could break the current stalemate and force some action on Super PACS and other vehicles for campaign finance. (That explanation is forthcoming; the groups mounted a successful petition drive on the White House online outreach page).

Now, Senate Democrats are adding pressure on the FEC. On Tuesday, ten Democrats plus Bernie Sanders, an independent, sent the FEC a letter urging it to enact broad disclosure rules for Super PACs, and to force more disclaimers on advertisements about who is funding them.

“While the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, we must be sure that the corporate structure does not obscure the speaker,” the senators wrote. “This is why we believe that the identity of individual contributors should also be disclosed when they make substantial donations to organizations financing independent expenditures.”

The letter was signed by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Al Franken (MN), Jeff Merkley (OR), Tom Udall (NM), Sherrod Brown (OH), Michael Bennet (CO), Chuck Schumer (NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Barbara Boxer (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Sanders.

Seven of those senators sent a letter last week to the Internal Revenue Service, asking to investigate—or admit that it is already investigating—the political activities of tax-exempt 501(C)(4) groups. These nonprofits are forbidden from engaging predominantly in “electioneering” activities, and it’s hard to see how groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS isn’t doing exactly that.

This is important pressure coming from the Hill onto the FEC—and if the White House is serious about campaign finance reform, as it claimed to be last month when announcing that administration officials would support a Democratic Super PAC, then it should join the calls by these Senators for more disclosure and tighter rules.

While we’re on the subject, Stephen Colbert had a delicious roasting of the administration for doing a 180 on Super PACs last night:

Keystone XL Would Raise Gas Prices, Not Lower Them

A basic Republican attack on President Obama is shaping up for the 2012 election: the national debt is too high, the unemployment rate is too high, and gas prices are too high.

Two of these three issues find a home in the Keystone XL pipeline—the boilerplate Republican argument is that the White House not only killed a project that could provide jobs in construction and maintenance, but also exacerbated higher gas prices by denying the markets more oil. Rick Santorum charged in Ohio yesterday that Obama’s “radical environmentalist policies” were threatening the economic recovery and driving up fuel prices. Mitt Romney has been sounding similar notes.

Unfortunately, there’s an all-too-typical problem with the Republican line on Keystone: it’s completely unsupported by the facts. On the jobs front, the Cornell Global Labor Institute estimates the project would create only 2,500 to 4,650 short-term construction jobs—not the “hundreds of thousands” of jobs claimed by House Speaker John Boehner.

Similarly, gas prices would not decrease if Keystone was built—they’d likely go up in many areas of the country. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and leader of the movement to stop the pipeline, took to The Hill today to debunk this myth:

This is nonsense on many fronts, most of all because the price is oil is fundamentally set on global markets. As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in late January, when there’s trouble in places like the Straits of Hormuz, the price of oil goes up for everyone and Keystone will make no difference, since the oil market is “globally integrated’; it’s not like Exxon offers a home-country discount to American motorists.

But in the case of the Keystone pipeline, it turns out there’s a special twist. At the moment, there’s an oversupply of tarsands crude in the Midwest, which has depressed gas prices there. If the pipeline gets built so that crude can easily be sent overseas, that excess will immediately disappear and gas prices for 15 states across the middle of the country will suddenly rise. Says who? Says the companies trying to build the thing. Transcanada Pipeline’s rationale for investors, and their testimony to Canadian officials, included precisely this point: removing the “oversupply’ and the resulting “price discount” would raise their returns by $2 to $4 billion a year.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, that would translate to about $3 for an average 15-gallon fill-up—as independent energy economist Philip Verleger put it, with Keystone the industry “will be able to use its market power to raise the heavy crude price to Midwest refiners above the level that would prevail in a competitive market.”

This is point worth repeating again and again. Fox News is already revving up its outrage machine over gas prices, and aiming it directly at the White House. If gas is over $4 per gallon through most of the summer, we’ll be hearing “Keystone” on the stump almost every day.

Petition to Break Up Bank of America Pushes Forward

Last month, we noted that Public Citizen filed an official petition with the Federal Reserve to break up Bank of America, using powers granted under the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Those measures were supposed to end "too big to fail,” yet Bank of America has assets equal to one-seventh of America’s GDP—and there are quiet but persistent whispers about the bank’s financial health and inability to raise capital.

If the bank were to go under, it would no doubt wreak havoc on the global economy. Public Citizen wants a controlled breakup of the bank now, before a crisis arises. It has just released a new video advocating for Federal Reserve action, using the words of President Obama, who pledged the country would never be held hostage by a too-big-to-fail institution.

 

There is also a public petition drive underway; you can view and sign here

Obama’s Plan to Save the Military From Cuts—at the Expense of Domestic Programs

As budget wonks comb over President Obama’s outline for fiscal year 2013, a startling White House plan has become clear: the administration is seeking to undo some mandatory cuts to the Pentagon at the expense of critical domestic programs. It does so by basically undoing the defense sequester that kicked in as a result of the Congressional supercommittee on debt. This wasn’t a featured part of the White House budget rollout, and for good reason—it undercuts the administration’s carefully crafted message of benevolent government action and economic fairness.

The process for this shift is complicated, and has been flagged by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Essentially, Obama wants to eliminate individual spending caps for both military and non-military spending, and institute one single discretionary spending cap instead. Here’s the basic rundown.

To understand how deep the retreat really is, one first needs to understand the difference between security spending and defense spending. Spending on defense applies to the “National Defense Function”—that is, the entire Pentagon budget, plus $24 billion for nuclear weaponry and environmental cleanup programs at the Department of Energy, the defense activities of the FBI, and a small handful of other defense programs. Security spending, on the other hand, excludes some of the Department of Energy money, along with some of the other FBI and small program funding—but includes the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security and the “International Affairs” part of the budget, which is mainly State Department funding and foreign aid.

So from a progressive point of view, to cut the most fat from the military budget you want defense cuts, not security cuts—otherwise funding for veterans’ health and diplomatic efforts is also in jeopardy.

Next: when the debt ceiling deal passed in August, it implemented discretionary spending caps through 2021. This meant that if Congress appropriated money above certain levels for discretionary spending—which is basically everything the government spends money on, minus entitlement benefits and interest on the debt—something called sequestration kicks in, which entails automatic, across-the-board cuts to bring the budget back under the spending caps.

Under the debt ceiling deal, those spending caps were split between security and nonsecurity spending areas in 2012 and 2013. Nonsecurity spending is the important domestic stuff: everything besides security spending, entitlement benefits and interest on the debt. Think scientific research, the NASA budget, national parks and forests, environmental protection, social services, Head Start and so on. Then, in every year from 2014 through 2021, there would just be one cap. So starting in 2014, Congress could theoretically take everything from nonsecurity spending in order to maintain a healthy security budget and meet the spending cap.

The failure of the supercommittee changed all this. When the twelve members failed to reach an agreement in November, the budget laws automatically changed—now, there is no single cap starting in 2014, but dual caps in both defense and non-defense spending through 2021. That’s why hawks like Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain were so upset when the supercommittee failed—with mandatory caps in defense and nondefense spending through 2014, it was a worst-case scenario for defenders of the Pentagon budget.

The Obama budget plan, quite disappointingly, proposes to reverse the configuration of these caps. It would have caps in 2013, split between security and nonsecurity spending—not defense and nondefense—and then beginning in 2014, a single cap is reinstituted anyhow. All the firewalls ensuring that defense spending is reduced would thus be torn down.

The president’s budget for 2013 follows this new scheme: Obama proposes around $5 billion in spending above the defense cap, and $5 billion in spending below the nondefense cap. This would violate the current budget laws—unless the categorization was changed to security and nonsecurity spending. Then it would comply. And every year after, the distinction wouldn’t matter anyhow under one spending cap.

This is a dramatic shift in priorities, and one that not many people are discussing. Given the massive lobbying potential of the defense industry—and the comparably weak advocates for things like Head Start funding—it’s a virtual certainty that, under the White House proposal, these strict spending caps would be met by raiding nonsecurity spending heavily in years to come. Even the president’s own budget does that. One shudders to imagine the budget of President Romney or President Rubio.

Payroll Tax Cut Deal Gets the Job Done—but Has Major Flaws

After weeks of laborious negotiations, Congress passed a $143 billion package today to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance through the end of this year. The payroll tax cut will provide the average household $1,000 this year, a valuable form of economic stimulus, and 5 million Americans will continue to receive unemployment benefits. Taken together, the two measures may boost economic growth by 1 to 1.5 percent of GDP this year.

Both measures were part of President Obama’s jobs plan announced last fall, and Republicans were initially opposed to both. In December, Tea Party legislators in particular raised strong resistance to the idea of extending the payroll tax cut (mainly, one presumes, simply because it’s something President Obama wanted). Congress ended up passing a two-month extension only, and this time around Republican leaders seemed eager to at least extract worrisome concessions from Democrats for a yes vote.

Looking at the final details of today’s package, they failed—with some rather troubling exceptions.

I noted earlier this week that the unemployed could be left out of a deal entirely, and there were also troubling reports that Republicans might otherwise insist on mandatory drug testing and mandatory GED programs for the unemployed. In the end, the GED provisions were scrapped and the drug testing was watered down to simply allowing states to drug test unemployed applicants, not requiring it, and only for those who lost their job due to a failed drug test already or work in an industry where drug tests occur regularly.

Advocates for the jobless were largely pleased with the deal. “The payroll tax compromise affirms the critical role of the federal unemployment insurance program, on which millions of Americans have relied since the recession began to search for jobs, support their families and contribute to their communities,” said Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project. “Despite extreme efforts to dismantle this basic safety net and impose significant new barriers on unemployed workers, Congress has reached an agreement that recognizes the fundamental role of unemployment insurance in putting Americans back to work.”

Republicans insisted, however, that the unemployment extension be paid for by pension cuts for federal employees. This led several Maryland Democrats—notably Representatives Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, both members of the leadership team—to denounce the deal on the House floor this morning and vote against it. (Maryland has a high concentration of federal workers). “Nobody is targeted in this bill other than federal employees,” said Hoyer. “We ought to stop dissing them, we ought to stop demagoguing them, we ought to stop using ‘bureaucrat’ as an epithet.”

The strongest Democratic condemnation of the deal came from Senator Tom Harkin, who pledged to vote against it in a fiery Senate speech last night. His problem: the payroll tax cut slows down the revenue stream for the Social Security trust fund. The money will be replaced by money from the general taxation fund, but Harkin is still concerned this sets a precedent for raiding Social Security:

“I never thought I would live to see the day when a Democratic president and a Democratic vice president would agree to put Social Security in this kind of jeopardy,” Harkin said on the Senate floor Thursday evening. “Never did I imagine a Democratic president beginning the unraveling of Social Security.”

“It’s a devil’s deal,” he later added. “It’s a bad deal. There are better ways to accomplish these goals.”

“I choose my words carefully,” Harkin said. “Make no mistake about it, American people, make no mistake about it. This is the beginning of the end of the sanctity of Social Security.”

Harkin’s full speech can be seen here:

 

The package cleared the House this morning by a 293-132 vote, with 146 Republicans voting yes and forty-one Democrats voting no. It cleared the Senate 60-36.

Republican Hearing on Contraception: No Women Allowed

The panel for this morning's House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on birth control access.

This morning, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” The topic, as you might guess, is the recent administration decision to mandate birth control coverage.

As you might not guess, the first panel of witnesses doesn’t include a single woman. The five-person, all-male panel consists of a Roman Catholic Bishop, a Lutheran Reverend, a rabbi and two professors. 

Democrats on the panel were told they were allowed only one witness. They selected a young female Georgetown student, Sandra Fluke, who was going to discuss the repercussions of losing contraceptive coverage. But Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman, rejected her as “not qualified.”

When the hearing began this morning, the Democratic women on the committee walked out. Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat, put out a statement blasting Issa:

It is inconceivable to me that you believe tomorrow’s hearing has no bearing on the reproductive rights of women. This Committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, worthless, or irrelevant to this debate. […]

Even if you fundamentally disagree with Ms. Fluke’s viewpoint on this matter, you should not be afraid to hear it. A hearing stacked with last-minute witnesses who offer no competing views only contributes to the perception that our Committee is fostering a circus-like atmosphere intended to further politicize this debate.

The hearing will continue well into the afternoon, with a brief lunch break. You can watch a livestream here. We'll post more updates later.

UPDATE: At a press briefing this morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called out Issa’s selective witness list. “What is it that men don’t understand about women’s health and how central the issue of family planning is to that?” she asked. “Where are the women? And that’s a good question for the whole debate. Where are the women. Imagine, having a panel on women’s health and then not having any women on the panel, duh!”

A committee spokeswoman reached out to me this afternoon, offering to correct the record on the witness list and rebuke Pelosi. “Rep. Pelosi is either ill informed or arrogantly dismissive of women who don’t share her views. Today’s hearing does in fact include two women, Dr. Allison Garrett of Oklahoma Christian University and Dr. Laura Champion of Calvin College Health Services.”

As I noted, it was the first panel that was woman-free. The second panel indeed has the two aforementioned women, though I will note both are testifying against the administration’s contraception policy. Also, Dr. Champion is the only one of now eleven witnesses who has any public health experience. 

UPDATE 2: Though Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown student, wasn't allowed to testify today, she did speak passionately about access to birth control at the National Press Club last week. You can watch her remarks here:

 

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