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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Let Them Play: Behind FIFA's Decision to Ban Iran's National Women's Team

Soccer is the great global game: the closest thing we have to a connective cultural tissue that binds our species across national and cultural borders. But only in a world so upside down could “the Beautiful Game” be run by an organization as corrupt as FIFA and by a man as rotten to the core as FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Only Sepp Blatter, whose reputation for degeneracy approaches legend, would hire a war criminal like Henry Kissinger to head "a committee of wise persons" aimed at “rooting out corruption” in his organization. And only these two twinning avatars of amorality would use "the Beautiful Game" as an instrument of Islamophobia.

On Sunday, moments before Iran’s women’s team was due to take to the pitch and play in an Olympic qualifier against Jordan, the team was disqualified for wearing their traditional full-body tracksuits and hijabs. Jordan was granted a 3-0-forfeit victory, crushing the lauded Iranian team’s chances to go to the 2012 London Games.

As the Iranian players and officials tearfully objected, they were told that they had violated FIFA rules that state, "Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits." The team was also informed that since 2007 FIFA has held the view that wearing a hijab while playing “could cause choking injuries.”

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it’s asinine. “Hijab soccer choking deaths” doesn’t exactly send the Google search engine a-humming. But far more problematic is that the team had already received assurances from FIFA that the uniforms were in compliance. They had even had played preliminary rounds without a blip from Blatter.

Iranian women’s soccer director Farideh Shojaei told Reuters TV in an interview, “We made the required corrections and played a match afterwards. We played the next round and were not prevented from doing so, and they didn’t find anything wrong. That meant that there are no obstacles in our path, and that we could participate in the Olympics.... This [uniform] is neither religious, nor political, nor will it lead to harm a player…. and Mr. Sepp Blatter accepted this."

So what is really going on here? First of all, we should dismiss any of FIFA's concerns about the welfare of the women involved. Blatter is an unreconstructed sexist and without resistance, women's soccer would look something like the Lingerie Football League. The man who bans the hijab proposed in 2004 that women players wear "hot pants" on the pitch to boost the sport's popularity. He said that the "tighter shorts" would produce "a more female aesthetic."  In addition, for years, human rights organizations have asked Blatter to take a stand and say something about the horrific influx of sex-slave trafficking that accompanies the arrival of the World Cup. Blatter’s cold response, "Prostitution and trafficking of women does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of an international sports federation but in that of the authorities and the lawmakers of any given country.” In other words, he’s not exactly Susan Faludi.

Conversely, by denying the team the opportunity to show their genius in full Muslim dress, Blatter becomes an agent of their oppression. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote for Think Progress, “If we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence.” I would add that Blatter's decision only feeds the profound Western ignorance regarding the position of Iranian women since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The literacy rate for women before 1979 was 35 percent. Now it’s over 75 percent. In the days of the Shah, only one-third of women were enrolled in institutions of higher education. Now that number is 50 percent. One in three Iranian doctors are female. In the United States, that number is one in five.

The new presence of Henry Kissinger, pardon the expression, unveils what this kabuki theater is all about. Kissinger hasn’t been shy about his views on Iran, openly calling for war and saying, “We must work for regime change from the outside.” Given the way women’s rights has been used as a red herring to justify war on the Muslim world, this is about perpetuating the stereotype of the Muslim damsel in distress, denying those very women a powerful and visible presence on an international stage. This is about isolating Iran to continue the drumbeat of war. But most of all, at bottom, this is about Kissinger—and Blatter—using sports for their own political ends.

Those who bleat that “sports and politics” should be kept separate when an athlete dares express an opinion, should turn their outrage toward Blatter, Kissinger and FIFA’s decision to see soccer as a tool to sideline Muslim women. We should call upon FIFA to revoke the forfeits and adhere to the three words that should bind all leagues, all countries and all people who believe that sports can reflect the best of our species: let them play.

Photo: Washington Post

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On Weinergate: In Defense of Acting Like an Adult

While I share Amanda Marcotte’s frustration with the prurient media circus that developed around Weiner-gate—and truly, I find few people as odious as Andrew Breitbart—I’m puzzled by Amanda’s contention that Weiner is the victim of an anti-sex “free-for-all of rooting through politicians’ trashcans to make sure their private sex lives adhere to someone else’s standards.”

I’m not here to be a prude. If Congressman Anthony Weiner was plumber Joe Smith and digital exhibitionism was his personal kink, pursued inside his own home and without misleading his wife, I’d be the first one to stand up and defend his right to privacy. 

But let’s face it—any public figure who indulges this particular fetish is asking for trouble. Let’s review exactly what Weiner did. Over the course of several years, he repeatedly met strange women online and then proceeded to consensually swap semi-nude photos, sexts, explicit e-mail and Facebook messages, and occasionally engaged in phone sex with them. 

In the case of Meagan Broussard, the Texas mom who just happened to have ties to an as-yet unnamed Republican political activist, Weiner reached out to her at 3 pm on a Thursday; a photo he sent her depicts him sitting at a desk. He seems to have had phone sex from his Congressional office two days earlier with another woman, Lisa Weiss, just before he went down to the House floor to vote on a healthcare bill.

Weiner is a well-known workaholic. I’m not suggesting that he ever failed to fulfill his duties as a representative of New York’s 9th district. And it isn’t illegal to have phone sex from one’s Congressional office. But what sort of mature, adult professional carries on in this manner during business hours, with one’s staff just outside the office door? Not one with his priorities in order.

How did Weiner finally get caught? Due to his own stupidity when, on May 27, he miscoded a direct message containing a photograph of his crotch. Instead of sending the photo to Gennette Cordova, a Seattle college student, he blasted it to his public Twitter feed.

At that moment, Weiner lost any tenuous claim to privacy he may have had. (Remember, he was already aware that five women across the country possessed indiscreet photos of him. He was playing with fire.) I’m no fan of our debased and decadent media culture—heck, I usually write about education policy!—but I think that in America in 2011, it is simply absurd to suggest that the media not ask questions about a photo of an erect penis blasted out over a Congressman’s Twitter feed.

Nor does it appear that Weiner’s online hijinks were okay with his wife, Huma Abedin. At his press conference Monday, Weiner said he had lied to her about the chain of events until that very morning, claiming his account had been hacked. In fact, Abedin’s lack of approval was likely a major motivation behind Weiner’s public cover-up attempts, as well. While Abedin may have known that Weiner participated in such activities before he met her, there is no indication whatsoever that this was some sort of shared, agreed-upon sexual fetish within their marriage.

Amanda worries that scandals like this one will keep good people who just happen to like non-normative sex from going into politics. I have to say, I’m not too worried. If people who can’t get through the workday without from-the-office phone sex don’t run for Congress in the future, I think the Republic will survive.

Read Amanda Marcotte's response "On Weinergate: Before Throwing Stones..."

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Bye Bayh: Vice Presidential Aspirant Becomes K Street Sellout

The Chamber of Commerce spent $17 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year, far more than any other group, and has an entire division devoted to fighting the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law. It’s fair to say that they’re obsessed with defanging nearly every major piece of legislation enacted by the Obama administration, with financial reform at the top of the list.

To that end, the Chamber recently hired former Bush Administration chief of staff Andy Card and former Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh to lead its new “grassroots” anti-regulation campaign over the summer. According to Chamber President Tom Donahue, new BFFs Bayh and Card “will carry a bipartisan message on regulatory reform out around the country through a ‘road show’ of speeches, events, and media appearances.” Not so long ago, Bayh was a possible vice presidential candidate for Obama and a future presidential aspirant. Now he’s just a hired gun for big business. In a delicious bit of irony, Bayh will spend the summer denouncing the very financial reform legislation he voted for while in the Senate. Whatever principles he ever had are now long gone.

The Chamber’s high-profile hires are the latest indication of how corporate America is fighting hard to roll back financial reform. Last week I detailed in The Nation how the banking lobby is trying to weaken the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it goes live on July 21 and prevent Elizabeth Warren from becoming its permanent director. Today the New York Times reported that the implementation of Dodd-Frank is way behind schedule on a number of fronts. “So far, 28 of the financial overhaul rule-making deadlines have been missed, according to Davis Polk, a law firm that is tracking the rules,” writes Louise Story. “Of the 385 new rules to be written, the law firm says, regulators have completed only 24 requirements; they were supposed to have taken 41 such actions by now.” As Pro Publica recently noted, Dodd-Frank is quickly becoming a dud.

Congressional Republicans and their corporate benefactors would like nothing more than for financial reform to die via inertia. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) calls opponents of Dodd-Frank members of the “Financial Crisis Never Happened Caucus.” Absent strong action from the federal government, the Obama Administration may soon become its newest member.

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Anthony Weiner and the 'How Can You Be So Stupid?' Question

Others have eloquently discussed whether Anthony Weiner should resign (no, say Mike Papantonio and Andrew Sullivan, and they’ve convinced me), or whether lying about sex necessarily reveals anything about one’s character (nope, says Rick Hertzberg, who made me rethink the character issue).

But I’m still stuck on the postmod question that haunts every political sex scandal: Why didn’t you learn from the last schmuck that got caught?

And its corollary: How can you be so stupid?

So stupid to think your well-known mug wouldn’t be recognized (Eliott Spitzer, David Vitter, Chris Lee), so stupid to think you won’t eventually be caught (Gary Hart, Clarence Thomas, Larry Craig, John Ensign, John Edwards, Arnold), so stupid to try to a cover-up (Bill Clinton, Ensign, Edwards, etc. etc. etc.) and, especially in this day and age, so stupid as to ever, ever send pictures, chats, or anything even halfway creepy—lord, even a little risqué—online, much less on an open, public Twitter account.

Weiner surely exulted in Kathy Hochul’s victory in NY-26, which was made possible, after all, by the aforementioned former Representative Chris Lee, who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn from his predecessors. The married Lee sent hubba-hubba photos of his shirtless self to a woman on Craigslist (and, apparently unlike Weiner, tried to establish personal contact with). The tweeted photo that did Weiner in was sent May 20, long after the Lee scandal had produced the political earthquake of Hochul’s victory and established online gaminess as fair game.

Of course, Weiner didn’t fess up until he realized that more photos, and more women, were about to reach the public eye, forcing him to end his Nixonian limited hang-out of the previous ten days.

And that invokes the ultimate question for such a rising Democratic star: How could you have been so stupid as to make Andrew Breitbart look good?

At yesterday’s crazy, painful press conference—painful to watch him cry, painful to imagine losing such a passionate progressive champion in Congress—someone did ask Weiner the “stupid” question:

Q: When Chris Lee sent that photo and was caught and had to resign, did that make you stop and think, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this because I could be caught next? Did that ever go through your mind?

REP. WEINER: I didn’t think of it that way. From—I would think about—from time to time, I would say to myself, this is a mistake or this conversation—someone could listen in on or translate to someone else. This was a—I know that there is the sense that everything is part of a plan, and it was thought through and calculated. In this case, it was just me doing a very dumb thing, and for that I accept the responsibility.

At this point, the usual answers to male idiocy are that a lot of men, especially those in power, don’t believe they’ll ever be caught; or conversely, that they unconsciously want to get caught, perhaps to punish themselves because they feel undeserving of their status.

I can’t possibly know what was really going through Anthony Weiner’s mind when he did this, and neither can anyone else. But breaking through the wall around your public image with a private urge can be a transgressive thrill.

Can the next pol in line eager to bust through that public/private wall just please think about Weiner and Lee and Edwards a little more than “from time to time”?

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The Most Important Nominations Held Up by GOP Senators

This week, Peter Diamond withdrew his nomination to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Though he was a recent recipient of a Nobel Prize in economics, Republicans in the Senate blocked Diamond’s nomination because he was “an old-fashioned, big government Keynesian,” in the words of Senator Richard Shelby. A few weeks ago, Goodwin Liu withdrew his nomination to a federal appeals court after Republican senators refused him a vote, possibly because he testified for Democrats during the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings.

This is part of a larger confirmation crisis in the Senate: Republicans have blocked 223 of President Obama’s 1,132 executive and judicial appointees—over 20 percent. Republican senators have enforced a strict sixty-vote threshold for most nominations, and sometimes holds are placed on nominees anyhow. This hobbles crucial federal agencies and is yet another successful prong of the Republican war against effective government.

Here are some of the most crucial positions in government that are still awaiting a permanent appointment:

(1) Jim Cole is already serving in the No. 2 spot at the Department of Justice after President Obama gave him a recess appointment last year, because Senate Republicans held up his nomination. He can serve only through the end of this calendar year, however, and last month Senate majority leader Harry Reid tried once again to confirm Cole permanently. He came up eleven votes short, with every Republican except Senator Richard Lugar voting against confirmation. Cole’s sin, according to Republican senators, is that he supports all available tools for prosecuting terrorists—including federal trials.

(2) After months of lockstep Republican opposition in the Senate, Joseph Smith withdrew his nomination to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency in January. FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Obama has not named another appointment following Smith’s withdrawal. According to the Wall Street Journal, Republicans opposed the nomination because they “feared Mr. Smith would heighten pressure on Fannie and Freddie to slash mortgage balances for troubled homeowners.”

(3) The US Fish and Wildlife Service has no permanent director, though Obama nominated Dan Ashe to lead the bureau months ago. But Sen. David Vitter put a hold on Ashe and said he’d keep it there until the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement issued fifteen offshore oil drilling permits. (BOEMRE, like Fish and Wildlife, is overseen by the Interior Department). The fifteenth permit was issued last week and Vitter withdrew his hold—but Senator Mike Lee is going to place a hold on Ashe over the Interior Department’s “wild lands” policy, which protects unused land from energy exploration.

(4) The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms hasn’t had a director since 2006 because the National Rifle Association has pressured senators to hold up every single nomination—even those by George W. Bush. Obama nominated Andrew Traver, a Navy veteran and longtime ATF special agent, to head the agency last year. But the NRA immediately came out against Traver because they connected him to promotion of “a variety of gun control schemes.” That might seem like natural experience for someone who hopes to lead a large federal agency charged with cracking down on illegal gun violence and trafficking, but apparently Republicans disagree—Traver’s nomination has been languishing in the Senate for months.

(5) Obama nominated John Bryson to lead the Commerce Department last week, and Republicans are already preparing for war on his nomination. Bryson helped start the National Resources Defense Council—or if you prefer the words of Senator James Inhofe, Bryson is “the founder of a radical environmental organization.” Inhofe has pledged to “work actively to defeat his nomination.” Other Republicans say they won’t vote to confirm Bryson until the Obama administration agrees to three free-trade agreements without including labor and environmental protections.

(6) Anybody who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Senate Republicans took their obstruction to new levels last month, when forty-four senators signed a pre-emptive letter to President Obama saying they would oppose anyone that he nominated to lead the CFPB. Republicans are demanding a long list of changes that would reduce the agency’s power, including the creation of a five-member commission to run the CFPB instead of a single director. It’s a new low—Republicans aren’t just blocking the nomination of a particular person, but the existence of their intended position.

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Tennis Anyone? What Li Na's Grand Slam Win Tells Us About China

The Women’s Tennis Association could not be happier today. With her victory in the French Open on Saturday, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. Her historic triumph brings an unprecedented opportunity to market the sport to China’s perceived fan base of 1.3 billion people. According to Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Li’s finals match against Francesca Schiavone drew a Chinese audience of 116 million.

The press has compared Li to basketball player Yao Ming because she carries a wink and an edge that could stand to make her popular beyond the tennis crowd. As CNN-Beijing’s Xiaoni Chen wrote somewhat primly, “She has a tattoo, has dyed her hair many different colors and has even been known to yell at her husband in public.” When speaking about her victory over Schiavone, Li said in halting English, “Of course I was nervous. But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.” By “cheating” she meant “acting.”

She’s funny, smart, and good enough to contend in every Grand Slam tournament. Like Yao, she could become that holiest of holy grails in sports marketing: a brand. The clay had not even been smoothed on the courts of Roland Garros before the Wall Street Journal was asking the question, “As China celebrates Li Na’s victory in the French Open the next question is how she—and the world’s biggest brands—will cash in on her celebrity. Which labels will she represent? How will she be marketed? And who will pay the big money for her endorsement?”

The irony at work should be readily apparant. In the Eastern bloc, athletics was seen as a way for athletes to forge individual identities. Often times, as in the case with Czech tennis great Martina Navratilova or Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez, it meant defecting to the West so they could reach greener pastures and flower freely.

Now Li seems set to bloom: and the fertlizer is coming in bags labeled Nike and Rolex. Rolex is Li’s biggest sponsor and as the Wall Street Journal explained, “A Rolex watch is a status symbol among China’s wealthy set.” As for Nike, Li’s entourage was all wearing canary-yellow Nike shirts that read “Achieve Yourself” in Mandarin lettering. The savvy Li pointed out in her victory-press conference that Nike had produced very few of these shirts for the Chinese market. She said, “I think now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts.”

But before the new Li Na Rolexes and designer swoosh-wear roll off the assembly line and into the eager arms of consumers in the People’s Republic, we should take a moment and see what this actually tells us about twenty-first-century China: the great economic partner and political bogey-man of the United States. Along with explosive economic growth over the last decade, class divisions in China have sharpened dramatically. This has been reflected in a tennis boom, seen as the symbolic sport that marks you as “elite.” In 1988 1 million people played tennis in China. Today that number stands at 14 million. Playing tennis is a sign that a family has status and it differentiates the new elites from those migrating from province to province struggling to survive. An article by Reuters published just last Thursday highlights this reality: “High-rise towers are under construction and luxury cars roll past bars and cafes catering to the city’s entrepreneurial class, many of whom have become rich from real estate and stock market speculation. But inside the town’s factories, it’s another story.”

This “other story” was typified by an explosion last month at an iPad polishing factory where three workers died and 15 were injured. The catastrophe made international news. But accidents of the sort are “business as usual” in China. “Business as usual” in 2010 meant 360,000 industrial accidents across the country that were directly connected to the deaths of nearly 80,000 people. The brutal realities of “business as usual” have also spurred thousands of strikes and factory occupations over the last several years, even as workers risk imprisonment, torture and death for their militancy. Independent unions, factory councils and pitched battles in the streets are as much a feature of modern China as the McDonald’s on the corner.

We can cheer the beauty and artistry of Li Na’s ability on the court. But please don’t call it a victory for China. Part of this remarkable country will cheer and play more tennis. A very separate and unequal part will die making those canary-yellow shirts: the last thing they see being that market-tested exhortation: “Achieve Yourself.” These contrasting realities are a recipe for the kind of social conflict for which Nike has no slogan.

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Can LBJ-Style Toughness Save Barack Obama?

Last week, the New York Times published an interesting op-ed from a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Califano, who presents Johnson’s ability to bully and cajole Congress into supporting his agenda as a possible template for President Obama:

In other words, Johnson won because he knew Capitol Hill’s pressure points. Like a great general, he understood the difference between tactics (the private promise, the discreet promise) and strategy (the order of bills, his legislative goals) and he understood how to make them work together.

 Today the White House confronts a similar need to raise the debt limit and eventually increase taxes, alongside demands that domestic spending be sharply reduced. True, Mr. Obama faces a more divided Congress and an unemployment rate more than double that of 1967, but not the kinds of divisions over race and war that prompted Johnson not to seek re-election.

Mr. Obama would be wise to look to the fiscal battles of 1967 and 1968 for inspiration. To slay his own political Cerberus without savaging social programs will take a similar measure of commitment, political wiliness and courage.

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Johnson managed to get a tremendous portion of his agenda through Congress, but that has less to do with powers of persuasion, and more to do with the structure of Congress and the party system writ large. In 1964, the parties were loosely organized and ideologically diverse, with a noticeable absence of party discipline. Southern conservative Democrats stood against Northern liberal Democrats, who often built alliances with Northern liberal Republicans. Likewise, those conservative Democrats were willing to make common cause with Western libertarian Republicans and others on the opposite side of the aisle.

What’s more, certain Congressional rules that we now take for granted—the routine supermajority requirement for legislation—simply didn’t exist in the 1960s. Filibusters were rare, and most legislation (with the notable exception of civil rights legislation) passed with simple majorities. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the political circumstances of Johnson’s presidency; the early part of his agenda was presented as the legacy of an assassinated president, and while this didn’t guarantee passage, it certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s undoubtedly true that Johnson’s political persona was useful to guiding particular pieces of legislation through Congress. But for the whole of his agenda, we have to look to the circumstances of his presidency—and the institutional norms he worked within—if we want to explain his success. Put another way, if the institutional norms of 2009 matched those of 1967, then Barack Obama would be hailed as one of the country’s great liberal presidents. With those norms in place, the Obama administration could have passed an extremely robust stimulus, a strong public option for healthcare (or even single-payer) and legislation to address climate change. Raising the debt limit wouldn’t be a problem, at all, if simple majorities were the rule, and the parties were both ideologically diverse and willing to cooperate.

One last thing: Johnson’s bullying was not cost-free. As a result of his tactics, Johnson was virtually shunned from Washington in his short post-presidency. Johnson alienated Congressional allies, and had he served a second term, his administration would have suffered for it. If anything, Obama should look to Lyndon Johnson for example of what not to do in pursuing an agenda.

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Senate Republicans Block Yet Another Well-Qualified Obama Nominee

In April 2010, President Obama nominated Peter Diamond, a Nobel Prize–winning economist and MIT professor, to a seat on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. On three different occasions the Senate Banking Committee approved his nomination. Yet Republicans in the Senate, led by Alabama’s Richard Shelby, blocked his confirmation because they disagreed with his economic policy views. “Dr. Diamond is an old-fashioned, big government Keynesian,” Shelby said. Diamond, who finally had enough of the endless delay and partisan attacks, withdrew his nomination today, explaining why in a New York Times op-ed. “Last October, I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market,” he wrote. “But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve—at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination.”

The absence of a Nobel Prize–winning economist at the Fed at a time of economic crisis is particularly galling. L’affaire Diamond is a perfect illustration of how Senate Republicans have abused and warped Senate rules, which I blogged about last week. Diamond suffered the same fate as other well-qualified Obama nominees, like Goodwin Liu and Dawn Johnson, who Republicans stubbornly refused to confirm.

As I noted last week, of the 1,132 executive and judicial branch nominations submitted to the Senate by President Obama, 223 nominees have yet to receive a vote on the Senate floor, according to White House data. That means that nearly 20 percent of Obama nominees have been blocked by Senate Republicans.

You’d think such obstruction would force Obama to circumvent the traditional nomination process and fill these vacant posts via recess appointments. President Bush used that power 171 times during his presidency. But Obama has done so only twenty-eight times. To catch up with Bush, Obama would have to make roughly twenty-eight recess appointment per year until the end of his presidency, assuming he wins a second term and governs for eight years.

Obama has no choice but to act. If the Senate won’t fulfill its constitutional role, the president must.

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US Uncut Protests Apple's Tax Dodging Practices

US Uncut protested Apple stores this weekend to oppose the company’s federal tax dodging practices. The group staged a series of “dance-in” protests in stores nationwide.

Specifically, the group has taken issue with Apple’s support of the “Win America Campaign,” which would allow Apple to keep $4 billion (overall corporations would shelter $80 billion in taxes) that might otherwise have gone back to the federal government during a time of severe economic austerity. Members of the Win America coalition include Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Kodak, Google, Oracle and Adobe Systems.

US Uncut Boston:

Technology companies are infamous for this kind of tax dodging behavior. For example, Google and Microsoft both funnel profits through tax havens in Ireland and the Netherlands. Overall, the funneling scheme costs the United States about $60 billion every year.

US Uncut DC:

During a time when teachers are losing their jobs, US Uncut says it’s unjust to place the bulk of economic burden on the shoulders of the poor, especially when those who caused the financial collapse with shady derivatives trading go unpunished.

“Our rallying cry is, ‘we all pay our taxes, and why don’t they?’” said Ryan Clayton, a co-founder of US Uncut. “At the same time as we’re firing firefighters, teachers and cops, it’s just really irresponsible for them to not be paying their fair share of the public burden.”

“The middle class has to make that up, either through cuts, or through higher middle-class taxes,” he said.

Most outrageously, Apple isn’t even the worst offender. The company’s effective tax rate of 24 percent is still a larger percentage than other tech companies pay, such as Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and eBay.

But it is Apple’s brand popularity and largely positive public reception that attracted US Uncut, though protesters have taken issue with Apple’s labor practices in the company’s outsourced factories and privacy policies in the past.

“Most of the other companies aren’t really gonna give a damn if we go after them. They’re not concerned for their reputation. [With Apple] there’s a little more leverage,” [says] US Uncut spokesperson Joanne Gifford.

Another US Uncut spokesperson further explains why Apple was targeted:

“If we can put enough shame on Apple’s brand by showing up at their stores, we can hopefully get Steve Jobs and the Apple team to leave the WinAmerica campaign.”

Reports indicate that one of the livelier protests on Saturday occurred in Madison, Wisconsin’s Apple store located in West Towne Mall. Madison Twitter user @annelyttle tweeted a series of photos from the protest, adding “Nefarious #taxdodger #Apple keeps trying to kick us out of their store but we’re coming in waves. #usuncut.”


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Did John Edwards Break the Law?

The Federal Election Commission, which regulates campaign spending, does not get much paperwork on candidates’ mistresses. According to the federal prosecutors who indicted John Edwards on Friday, however, the former senator should have been sending his mistress’s hotel bills to the FEC.

That is the most peculiar idea in a very peculiar indictment. It appears on the second to last page, under the charge of making “false statements” to the government, one of six counts Edwards faces. 

The theory here is that gifts from Edwards’s supporters to his mistress were essentially donations to his campaign. And that they should have been counted by the campaign. Since they were not, prosecutors are accusing Edwards of filing false campaign reports with the FEC.

“Those reports failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from [donors to Edwards’s mistress],” reads the last line of the indictment.  All the other counts against Edwards rest on the same theory. (He is accused of conspiring to receive, and actually receiving, campaign contributions as personal gifts under the table.)

So the prosecution has to get from the evidence of spending cash to hide an affair (which happened and is generally legal), to proving that campaign donations were made to hide an affair (which did not happen, at least in the literal or traditional sense of the term). It’s a reach.

This is a “novel claim,” according to George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley, who voiced support for Bill Clinton’s impeachment and is not exactly known to be soft on political corruption. Turley could not find a single “actual federal case” supporting the prosecution’s theory. Election law expert Melanie Sloan, who runs the anti-corruption group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, agreed that “no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly.” Turley adds that the defense can argue “this was not an effort to hide money from the FEC but to hide an affair from Edwards’ wife—a classic motivation.”

In any event, without guidance from previous cases, the text of the Federal Election Campaign Act will likely be key.

The law essentially states that gifts for a candidate’s personal expenses do not count if they would have been made irrespective of the candidate’s running for office.

So if Edwards can show that the payments were made regardless of his choice to run—or maybe before or after he ran—then the gifts would not count towards the law’s contribution limits. That logic would undermine all the counts against him. But things get even weirder.

To make this “novel” case stick, the prosecution is proposing that hiding Edwards’s mistress was a core mission of his presidential campaign. “A centerpiece of Edwards’ candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man,” states the indictment’s first allegation. It continues, “the communication strategy developed by Edwards’ campaign stressed the importance of publicizing, among other things, ‘that [his] family comes first.’”

This line is not provided to embarrass the defendant, who disappointed many on this score but to convert the personal to political. If being a “family man” was a campaign “centerpiece,” then preserving that image could be, supposedly, a campaign activity.

“Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by [undermining his] presentation of himself as a family man,” the indictment alleges, “and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy.”

Here is where there may be repercussions beyond the participants in U.S. v. Johnny Reid Edwards. This particular case may turn on whether the personal payments should have been categorized as campaign donations. For all federal candidates, however, the FEC already bars spending official campaign funds on personal expenses.

The FEC explains the rule in a recent document providing advice for federal candidates:

Using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited, even when a federal candidate or officeholder is no longer seeking election to federal office.


The FEC document continues to explain that its “regulations list some expenses that are automatically considered to be personal use,” such as the candidate’s personal rent and “salary payments to the candidate’s family.”  For other, closer calls on spending, the FEC uses a similar approach to its test for gifts. It’s worth quoting in full:

In determining whether expenses are for personal use or are legitimate campaign/officeholder expenses, the Commission uses the “Irrespective Test.” Personal use is any use of funds in a campaign account of a candidate (or former candidate) to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder. 11 CFR 113.1(g). More simply put, if the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies [emphasis added].

It seems obvious that money for a candidate’s child is an expense that exists “even in the absence of the candidacy.” (Lots of non-candidates pay alimony.)

So Edwards’s lawyers may argue that not only was there no obligation to report the private gifts but the prosecutors actually have the law backwards. It would have been a violation of campaign finance law if Edwards did what the prosecution says he failed to do—file and spend the money for his family as official campaign expenditures.

Now, if Edwards were convicted under this theory, would that be a precedent for treating payments to mistresses as legitimate campaign expenses? Would a candidate who made his personal fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of his campaign be able to use campaign funds to pay off personal debt?

It feels like the right answer must be no. But stretching campaign bans this far could lead to some very unsettling outcomes.

The “ambiguity of where to draw the line between personal and campaign expenditures” is the biggest problem for the prosecution’s theory, argues Professor Turley. “Just because hiding the affair would be of benefit to Edwards as a candidate as well as a spouse,” he told The Nation, “does not necessarily mean the dual benefit converts a cover-up of an affair into a campaign violation.” He added, “The uncertainty over where to draw the lines makes me uncomfortable with the criminal charge.”

No matter how one feels about John Edwards’s conduct, based on what is currently known, these charges should make a lot of people very uncomfortable.

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Photo credit: Marc Nozell

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