When Obama first came to office, he signed an executive order that was intended to curtail the power of lobbyists in his administration. But the order didn’t actually make lobbying go away, it only sent it underground. Now, a deregistered, shadow lobby industry is booming, and money spent on lobbying in DC enjoys a 22,000% return on investment. The Nation’s Lee Fang joined The New York Times’s Nicholas Confessore on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner to discuss these trends and the revelations from Fang’s Nation feature Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone?
The fight for LGBT equality has experienced some stark highs and lows recently. Attorney General Eric Holder called LGBT rights one of the central civil rights fights of our time, even as Arizon's legislature passed a bill that allows businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, using religious convictions as justification. Nation contributing writer Ari Berman appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show to discuss how LGBT rights fit in to the larger civil rights struggle. According to Berman, the success of movements like North Carolina's Moral Mondays depends upon strong coalition-building. Berman attributed the strong turnout of a recent Moral Mondays rally to the fact that "so many different causes were represented." The groups behind those causes, which include LGBT, immigrant and traditional civil rights organizations, are "all fighting in a shared struggle."
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an archaic Senate policy is being used by a shameless Republican minority to obstruct the will of the president—and the people he was elected to represent.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the filibuster, which has been the Republicans’ most effective and least democratic method of thwarting the will of the majority.
But no, this is another, more obscure and arguably more ridiculous procedural weapon called a “blue slip.” First instituted in 1917, the blue slip process has allowed individual senators to effectively veto a nominee for a circuit court judgeship who hails from their own state. This privilege has been used sparingly by some Judiciary Committee chairmen and more regularly by others. But in recent months, it has been taken to the extreme.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
The Sochi Olympics, which began with the hashtag #sochiproblems, ended with Russia winning the medal count and enjoying a dose of national pride and international prestige. But now the authorities will be left to figure out what to do with 206 stadiums and assorted buildings, and residents will have to deal with the “Olympic legacy,” whether that’s a highway built through their yard, bulldozed homes or environmental damage in the 8,700 acres of the Sochi National Park that have been affected.
The Russian government’s promise of a “Zero Waste Games” has already been discredited, and now its compensation efforts are also proving to “have only a minor effect compared to the environmental damage,” as the United Nations Environmental Programme predicted after reviewing the Sochi Olympic project in 2008. In one tragicomic example, after Russian Railways planted 55,000 compensatory trees and rare plants, more than half of them died from improper planting techniques and a complete lack of care, Russia’s state environmental watchdog found.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak’s recent claim that Sochi’s air and water have become cleaner doesn’t seem to apply to the Mzymta River, which has been polluted by chemicals and debris to the point that endangered Atlantic salmon no longer spawn here, WWF Russia head Igor Chestin wrote in a recent article. These salmon are just one among many animals suffering from habitat destruction, including red deer, wild boar, bears and ibex.
But the epitome of miscarried compensation has to be the Ornithological Park that Russia promised in its Olympic application to ameliorate damage to the Imeretinskaya lowland. Once designated one of the world’s “Important Bird Areas” by BirdLife International, the lowland was filled in with gravel to create space for the coastal cluster of Olympic venues.
The park was originally planned as a contiguous 740-acre territory (scientists had recommended 2,000 acres) to preserve the lowland’s lakes as a wintering place for up to sixty-five species of birds—peregrine falcons, Dalmation pelicans and pygmy cormorants among them—and a habitat for protected plants. But it was eventually spread out over fourteen chunks of swampland, drainage ponds and abandoned farmland. The Russian Bird Preservation Union opposed the park as far back as 2009 on the grounds that it would “not meet the biological needs of birds” and would include “only an insignificant part of the territory that has been important so far for preserving birds.”
On a cloudy afternoon last week, about a dozen geese could be spotted in one section of the park that has been covered with lawn and criss-crossed with walking paths, benches and palm trees (several parts of the reserve are now planned to double as public parks). Another section of the park located right next to the Olympic Village, though, was full of trash, wimpy trees and power boxes, and there wasn’t a bird in sight.
According to park employee Sergei, who declined to give his last name, shrubs have been planted so birds can feed. He said “a lot of nature has been preserved,” but also admitted that “nature and the Olympics can’t be compatible.” The Ornithological Park can restore some bird life in the Imeretinskaya lowland, he said, although “not in the same amount” as in years past.
“It’s hard to say how much it will compensate, but hope dies last,” he said, using a common Russian expression.
But the president of the Russian Bird Union recently called the park a “profanation.” It doesn’t look like it will even come close to restoring this migration spot, since two-thirds of the park territory is located outside the lowland, where “there aren’t reservoirs suitable for water fowl to winter,” the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus concluded in a recent sweeping report on environmental destruction related to the Games.
Meanwhile, the environmentalists who have reported on travesties like the Ornithological Park continue to face pressure from law enforcement after Yevgeny Vitishko was imprisoned in what human rights advocates called retribution for his Olympics-related activism. Environmental Watch member Olga Noskovets and activist David Khakim, who attempted to picket for Vitishko outside Sochi city hall last week, were detained on the last day of the Olympics as they each arrived at a transport stop where they had agreed to meet. Environmental Watch has long feared that activists will face an even tougher crack down when the international media leave Sochi.
Previously, Noskovets was detained for three hours at the Russian-Abkhazian border, she said. “You understand you’re in some database, a blacklist,” she told The Nation in December.
The two activists face fifteen days in jail for allegedly resisting police, charges they deny.
Read Next: Alec Luhn on the crackdowns against activists in Sochi.
Today marks one of the most momentous nights in 1960s history. No, not another Beatles performance on Ed Sullivan but young Cassius Clay (already one of my boyhood heroes) whipping aging bad man Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight crown in a huge upset—paving the way for his decades at the forefront of American sports and culture and politics.
Yes, the Beatles visited him earlier in his training camp in Miami Beach for a much-publicized photo op. But the most amazing meeting was the coming together, in a modest hotel in a black neighborhood back in Miami after the fight—starring new heavyweight champ Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown (the greatest football player ever and Sam Cooke (possibly the finest singer of our time). Now that’s a line-up that tops even the Fab Four. Also in attendance: a certain undercover FBI agent.
Clay was about to announce his membership in the “black Muslims” and get a name change. Malcolm was about to get kicked out of that faith, despite (or partly because of) his friendship with Clay, and then make his epic trip to Mecca. Brown was getting more and more outspoken on race. And Sam Cooke was about to record a single with Ali—and write “A Change Gonna Come.” Within a little more than a year, Cooke and Malcolm would be dead.
But on that night, as Peter Guralnick writes:
They sat in Malcolm’s room with Osman Karriem and various Muslim ministers and supporters, eating vanilla ice cream and offering up thanks to Allah for Cassius’ victory, as an undercover FBI informant took note of this apparent nexus between the Nation of Islam and prominent members of the sports and entertainment industries. Sam was uncharacteristically quiet, taking in the magnificent multiplicity of the moment. To him, Cassius was not just a great entertainer but a kindred soul. He had made beating Liston look easy, and Sam was convinced he would beat him again. Because, armed with an analytic intelligence, he had made him afraid.
Jim Brown, an outspoken militant himself, though not a member of the Nation, appeared to veteran black sports reporter Brad Pye Jr. to be more elated over Clay’s achievement than any of his own. “Well, Brown,” said Malcolm with a mixture of seriousness and jocularity, “don’t you think it’s time for this young man to stop spouting off and get serious?”
That is exactly what Cassius did at a pair of press conferences he held in the two days following the fight. He was a Muslim, he said. “There are seven hundred fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them.” He wasn’t a Christian. How could he be, “when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up… . I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now, there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into….
I’m going to add to this story over the next hour. For now, let me direct you to this lengthy excerpt from Guralnick’s excellent biography of Cooke, which covers that night and the aftermath.
And here’s a clip from the opening of the Hollywood film Ali, with Will Smith in the starring role and a Sam Cooke character singing in a Miami nightclub that week—which actually happened and was immortalized on one of the great live albums ever, Live at the Harlem Club. Below that, the scene in the ring that night as Ali welcomes Cooke to his celebration. Finally, a clip of Malcolm talking with and about Ali in the aftermath.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: &ldqou;This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Want to Know What NAFTA Teaches Us About the TPP Fight?”
With Chris Christie flailing, is there another governor in the wings? Or an ex-governor, perhaps?
A new round of speculation is underway about whether Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, might be considering a run in 2016. According to Newsday, which reported on a speech that Bush delivered to a high-powered group on Long Island, New York, the former governor said that he’ll decide whether or not to run by the end of 2014. And, responding to a question about whether or not his last name is something he’ll have to overcome, Bush allowed as to how both he and Hillary would have to overcome the dynasty issue:
I get the point. It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.
One difference being: Bill Clinton’s presidency was, if not a major success, at least modestly successful—while George W. Bush’s presidency was a catastrophe.
In any case, if Bush does run, it’ll be because the mainstream Republicans and the big donors behind the GOP need someone else to carry their water against the insurgents of the Tea Party. For many of them, both in 2011 and again today, Christie was seen as the savior who could stop any of the tea-drinking Republican Senate freshmen—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz—from making a serious bid. Other possibilities include Scott Walker, the union-busting governor of Wisconsin and John Kasich, the center-right Ohio governor, but neither of them is particularly exciting or has much name recognition. Could it be another Bush?
Everyone’s got something to say. Charles Gasparino, a Fox Business Network senior correspondent and columnist for the New York Post, says that the scuttlebutt on Wall Street is that many of the heavy hitters are backing Hillary Clinton, while the conservative financiers who’ve long supported Christie, including Home Depot’s Ken Langone and ex-AIG poohbah Hank Greenberg are backing off—and looking at Bush. He writes:
In fact, it’s too soon to write Christie off: He might be able to recover from this mess (as long as there continues to be zero evidence that he had any idea his flunkies had snarled traffic approaching the George Washington Bridge to punish a political opponent). But the Wall Streeters I speak to (people with direct access to Christie and his inner circle) say the Christie presidential campaign is clearly on life support: They think he’s in the clear himself, but the stench from the scandal is starting to look impossible to overcome. They cite the cool reception Christie has been getting recently from Republican establishment types outside of his home turf in the Northeast, and the fact that many fund-raisers are now looking to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the party’s savior.
On CNN’s Inside Politics, John King had this to say:
[Bush] has said he’s going to think about 2016. A lot of people think he’s not serious, he just likes the spotlight, that he won’t want to run. But I will tell you this: I spoke to several Republican fundraisers this week who got phone calls from Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who hasn’t said he’s going to run but is starting to ask some serious questions. So people think that at least he’s giving it a very serious look.
Later, on CNN, King added that after speaking to “a half dozen GOP sources this past week, several reported having reliable information about Bush conversations with GOP moneymen.”
Perhaps the biggest GOP funder of all, the ultra-right, hardline pro-Israel hawk and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, will have a say. Next month, under the watchful eye of Adelson, several Republican hopefuls—including Christie, Walker and Kasich—will travel to Las Vegas to appear at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s for its annual spring meeting, which boasts Adelson on its board of directors, along with other wealthy conservatives such as hedge fund magnate Paul Singer. And, according to the RJC, Jeb Bush will speak at a VIP dinner for big contributors.
Bush is traveling elsewhere, too, to raise his profile if nothing else, speaking at college commencements and, today, at a fundraiser for the Long Island Association at an invitation-only event at a local country club—and, of course, his bilingual son George P. Bush is campaigning for a statewide post in Texas, courting Hispanic voters. This spring, Jeb Bush will be in New York City to speak and get an award from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Says Ira Stoll in The New York Sun:
The save-the-date notice that went out last week about the dinner, which is to take place in May, will only add to speculation about whether Mr. Bush intends to run for president in 2016. If he does, accepting the Manhattan Institute invitation is a smart move—it will provide Mr. Bush some valuable exposure before a large audience of right-of-center donors and intellectuals.
But, as Stoll points out, Bush “went to work for Lehman Brothers in 2007, which was poor timing.” Indeed.
According to the Jim Geraghty of National Review Online, speculating on whether Christie’s troubles will boost Bush, a “senior Republican strategist” described the situation facing Christie and Bush this way:
Bush’s speeches are getting better, tighter, and more campaigny, from what I’ve noticed. I still think Jeb is only a three-in-ten shot to go, but if you’re in his shoes, and Chris Christie has taken a huge hit in stock value—wouldn’t you wait and see? If Christie survives and runs, it’s a harder proposition by far, obviously.
Like Christie, Bush will have serious problems winning over far-right voters, Tea Party types, and others. Bush has staked out positions on issues such as immigration and education policy that are anathema to the Tea Party—which, of course, is what makes both Christie and Bush attractive to mainstream Republicans such as the US Chamber of Commerce, other Big Business groups and Wall Street. As Geraghty points out, the US Chamber has used Bush to tape commercials for favored candidates in local races recently. And that’s part of the reason recent polls of Tea Party voters don’t help Christie or Bush, who finished dead last—twenty-second and twenty-first, respectively, out of twenty-two!—in a poll of 62,000 Tea Party activists. (Cruz and Paul won, not surprisingly.)
But Bush, perhaps capitalizing on his nearly 100 percent name recognition and on Christie’s scandals, has consistently topped Christie in polls taken among mainstream voters. In one recent poll, among Florida Republicans, Clinton beats Bush 49 to 43 percent, while she tops Christie overwhelmingly at 51 to 35 percent—but, of course, that’s in Florida, where Bush remains extremely popular among the GOP faithful. An according to a Washington Post poll in January, Republicans and Republican-leaning voters favored Paul Ryan (20 percent), then Jeb Bush (18 percent) and Chris Christie (13 percent), in that order. (Back in 2013, Christie consistently led most polls.)
Read Next: The Dreyfusses on Christie’s money-strewn path to 2106
The Houston Chronicle published an extensive investigation of worker injuries and fatalities in Texas oil and gas fields, highlighting a lack of federal safety standards protecting onshore drill workers.
From 2007 to 2012, 664 US workers were killed in oil and gas fields, with 40 percent of deaths taking place in Texas. Sixty-five Texas oil and gas workers died in 2012 alone. In that same year, seventy-nine lost limbs, eighty-two were crushed, ninety-two suffered burns and 675 broke bones while working in the fields.
Reporter Lise Olsen finds several factors contributing to these numbers, from oil and gas employers recklessly cutting corners to government inspectors glossing over safety hazards. On top are lax federal regulations that don’t do much to spur improvement. Consider this:
At onshore oil and gas drilling sites, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is required to investigate only those accidents that kill workers or that cause three or more to be hospitalized. That translated to only about 150 of 18,000 work-related injuries and illnesses in the last six years in Texas. [Emphasis mine]
Olsen shows how under these standards, the details of accidents “remain locked away in confidential company safety reports, insurance archives or remote courthouse files in lawsuits.” She tells the story of a rig collapse that left a drill worker with a broken jaw, cracks in his spine and permanent brain and memory damage. While the well operator (Apache Corp.) settled with the worker in court, OSHA did not investigate the accident because less than three workers required hospitalization.
There’s a lot more in the investigation, which you can read here. The Chronicle will publish a second part this Sunday.
Read Next: A snow day cost this woman her job at Whole Foods.
For a long time now, it’s been obvious that the United States can’t sustain the bloated military budget that it supports now, and with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan nearly done—at least from the standpoint of direct US involvement with ground forces—Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel yesterday outlined a preview of how the Obama administration will approach defense spending over the next several years.
But the cuts, though substantial, ought to be seen as only a down payment on the level of defense spending reductions that are needed. Last evening, on PBS Newshour, defense budget expert Gordon Adams of American University said:
I call this 50 percent towards reality.… We’re coming down right now in the defense budget at about a pace like other drawdowns that we have done after Korea, after Vietnam, at the end of the Cold War. We have always come down somewhere around 30 percent in constant dollars from the top of spending to the way we reached the bottom. And we’re at the shallow end of that right now.
According to the Defense Department’s release about Hagel’s proposals—which still have to get through Congress and its Iron Triangle, including hawkish members of the House and Senate, defense lobbyists and the military itself—the Defence Secretary’s plan includes “shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II and eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes.” Hagel and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that “the Pentagon budget that will shrink by more than $75 billion over the next two years.” Among the details: the size of the US Army will shrink from 520,000 to as low as 440,000 active duty soldiers and the Marine Corps will be cut from 190,000 to 182,000. And Hagel frankly linked the cuts to what America can afford:
An Army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. It is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready.… This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to Congress that is not a war footing budget.
The Obama-Hagel DOD budget ideas are already drawing intense fire from hawks and neoconservatives, including in Congress, but there’s plenty for progressives to complain about, too. Major weapons systems that might have been cut were sustained, the US special forces units are being increased substantially from already high levels and Hagel announced that the US Navy would maintain all eleven of its aircraft carriers.
Indeed, the military-industrial complex was so thrilled about continuing Pentagon support for big-budget, high-tech weapons systems that, according to The Wall Street Journal, stock prices for major defense contractors rose after the announcement, and the Journal said:
The Pentagon is proposing to reverse a four-year slide in its weapons-buying and research spending, lifting prospects for higher revenue at hard-hit military contractors including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
The $496 billion fiscal 2015 request outlined on Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would protect most of the Pentagon’s major programs in return for limited cuts, canceling an Army combat vehicle and halting purchases of the Navy’s littoral combat ship. The cuts would fund new projects including cyberwarfare capabilities, $1 billion for a more fuel-efficient jet engine, and plans for a new Navy surface ship.
And the Journal added:
Only three of the Pentagon’s largest contractors by revenue—BAE, Boeing and United Technologies—didn’t register 52-week highs as the Pentagon’s plans emerged.
Naturally, recalcitrant hawks are already denouncing the cuts in personnel and the related reductions in spending on military pay, pensions and healthcare benefits. For instance:
In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon faulted President Barack Obama on Monday for “trying to solve our financial problems on the back of the military.” The Pentagon has already given up more than its fair share of the federal budget, McKeon said, adding Washington’s real spending problem is with mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the armed forces. “Unless we address that, we’re just going to keep digging ourselves further and further in the hole,” McKeon said.
Others, like Senator Kelly Ayotte (R.-NH), will weigh in on their favorite programs, such as the A-10 Warthog plane that will be canceled under Hagel’s proposal.
And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s not noted as a defense expert, also lambasted Hagel:
Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment, in which the administration’s own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffuse than ever. Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense. I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we’ve made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized.
But Rubio, if he wants to run for president, better get his talking points straight, because many of his Tea Party and libertarian-conservative backers—some of whom are outright isolationists—are more than willing to cut back on defense spending.
The cuts to military benefits, such as pensions and healthcare, ought to be applauded—but they’ll be exceedingly difficult to enact over the opposition of veterans groups and others. Those benefits are incredibly excessive as is, designed in part to attract enlistees to volunteer for the armed forces, and the military won’t give them up without a brutal fight to the finish. In the past, when presidents have tried to cut into these bloated benefits, they’ve been shot down every time—yet, from a budget point of view, that’s where the big bucks are.
Read Next: Nick Turse on misremembering America’s wars, from Vietnam to Iraq
There were many important hearings at the New York City Council yesterday. At one, tearful relatives talked about what it was like to watch a spouse get mowed down by a reckless cabbie, or hear that their son would never make it home because a careless city bus driver had run them over. At another, woman testified about what it meant when a labor and delivery unit at an outer-borough hospital shut down. But the most interesting—and, for the progressive agenda, perhaps the most important—hearing was about the Council itself and how to make it a more vibrant and democratic body. In the words of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the goal is a Council “of unity, equality and fairness... one that encourages debate.”
A focus on the Council's rules is not itself unusual: There is a standing Rules Committee to consider such changes, and each Council term begins with the adoption of the rules that will govern the distribution of power among the speaker, committee chairs and individual members. What was different about Monday's event was that the Council began a full-scale reconsideration of how that power ought to be divvied up. As Rules Committee chairman Brad Lander noted in a nod to Mark-Viverito, “It's not often that those in power are willing to think about giving some of it up in the public interest.”
The process itself reflects the principle, according to Lander: Rather than bringing forward a detailed policy plan for the public to weigh in on, the hearing was a broad discussion of how changes might be made in a few key areas, like the way bills are written and brought up for a vote, the authority of committee chairs and the distribution of discretionary funds.
It was clear in yesterday's hearing that the rule changes are not a simple, black-and-white thing. If you govern the distribution of discretionary dollars by formula rather than individual members' choices, are you really taking the politics out of funding, or merely rewarding those institutions who can play the higher form of politics that affects the formula itself? If you make it easier for members to write bills—the system is currently opaque and controlled by the speaker—does that mean the Council will be flooded by symbolic measures or, even worse, that bad ideas will somehow squeak through the system? Even the leading good government organizations who testified had subtle differences of opinion on the wisest way to tinker with how the system is run. People agree on the broad strokes, said Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey, but as the cliché goes, “the devil is in the details.”
And, as Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams noted, how much of the problem with Council governance is about custom rather than the rules themselves. There have been, he said, “things councilmembers were empowered to do but did not historically choose to do” because of a “historic running of the Council that made members feel they could not exercise” the powers they had.
Lander says more hearings are planned, and witnesses called on the committee to make the proposed Rules changes as transparent as possible—and to revisit them every couple years to, as NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff put it, “make sure they don't go stale.”
For those of us who've seen the Council's substantive work often reduced to caricature by tabloid editorial boards, who winced when the Council forever stained itself by extending term limits at Mayor Bloomberg's command in 2008, and who want to see how this Council will strike the balance of being a partner of the mayor but not a puppet, it will be a fascinating process to watch.
“It's not often that people in power consider the possibility that those powers may be curtailed,” noted Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman. “I'm convinced that a more democratic, open, active City Council that solicits the input and takes advantage of the strengths that all members bring to the table will ultimately be a stronger City Council.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on the power of progressives on City Council.