Connecticut’s Elections Enforcement Commission is undertaking a “thorough investigation” of right-wing pundit Ann Coulter for potentially breaking the law by voting in Connecticut while living in New York City, according to a commission spokesperson. Officials are responding to a formal complaint filed by Coulterwatch.com blogger Dan Borchers. “For over 10 years, Ann Coulter has gotten away with illegal, immoral and unethical behavior, ranging from plagiarism to defamation, perjury to voter fraud,” Borchers wrote.
I’m really shocked by the extent to which the architects of the Senate cuts to the recovery package aren’t being made to offer any kind of justification for their actions. And in the absence of pressure, they certainly aren’t doing it of their own accord. I wanted to see, for example, what Ben Nelson (D-NE) had to say for himself, and what he had to say was this, with his partner in crime Susan Collins (R-ME) chiming in:
“This bipartisan agreement delivers the help millions of Americans need in this time of economic turmoil,” said Senator Nelson. “It fuels two powerful engines: major tax cuts for the middle class, and targeted investments in American infrastructure and job growth. It also pares back $110 billion of spending that didn’t belong in the bill. We’ve trimmed the fat, fried the bacon, and milked the sacred cows. What remains will fund education, an energy Smart Grid, tax credits for homebuyers and other critical infrastructure.”
“This deal represents a victory for the American people,” said Senator Collins. “We came together to tackle the most immediate problem facing the nation. This package cuts $110 billion in unnecessary expenditures. These are not minor adjustments, but major changes. It contains robust spending on infrastructure to create jobs, $87 billion in assistance for states, and assistance to schools, especially for special education and Pell grants. This bill is not perfect, but it represents a bipartisan, effective and targeted approach to the crisis facing our country.”
Would you ever in a million years have guessed from this rhetoric that the primary change Collins and Nelson made was to implement big reductions in aid to states and, especially, in funding for education? I think not. In their rhetoric, Collins and Nelson preserved vital education funding and state assistance while eliminating various metaphorical animal products. Meanwhile, actual changes Collins and Nelson made include:
- Elimination of $25 billion in flexible funding for state governments.
- Cut $7.5 billion in funding for “state incentive grants” to help states make progress toward NCLB goals.
- Eliminated $19.5 billion in construction aid for schools and colleges.
- Reduced new aid for the Head Start early childhood program by $1 billion.
Nowhere in their statement do Nelson and Collins make any effort to justify these decisions. Indeed, they don’t even seem prepared to admit that they made these decisions. And some of them seem like really crazy decisions. Many stimulus skeptics such as Arnold Kling have been calling attention to the difficulty involved in dealing with sectoral shifts in the economy. One such shift is that we’ve seen a lot of job losses in the building trades industry. Funding school construction would directly target those idle resources and put them to work—something you’d like to do with stimulus but that’s often hard to execute. And if we don’t do school construction in the stimulus, we’ll still need to do school construction at some point. But instead of doing it now when it would help the economy, we’ll be doing it at some future point when construction projects are more expensive to undertake.
One thing that it’s important to understand about the role of the filibuster in the legislative process is that while it’s bad for the country and good for the minority political party, it’s also good for the individual members of the majority party. When you look, for example, at the House of Representatives’ debate on the stimulus plan you’ll see that there were actually a number of Democratic members who weren’t on board for the leadership’s plan. But you didn’t really see them on TV or read about them in the newspapers or hear about their ideas. Nor did you see the leadership making a big effort to change the plan to suit their needs. A really big bloc of majority party legislators can change a House bill, and senior members of the party who have leadership positions or chair important committees and subcommittees can change a House bill, but a few random members can just be ignored. Why? Because their votes aren’t needed. Nancy Pelosi can just say, “fine, vote ‘no’ if you want.”
But with a de facto 60 vote supermajority requirement in place in the Senate, not only do Senate Republicans have the ability to block all legislation and ensure that progressive policy is impossible, but each and every individual Democratic Senator can hold a bill hostage. So if Bill Nelson or Mary Landrieu or whomever has some kind of problem with the details of something, or some pet project they want, then the leadership has little ability to say no to them.
Recently, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) went on a fact-finding mission to Guantanamo Bay to rally opposition to President Obama’s executive order demanding the closure of the prison within one year. Upon his return, Inhofe unsurprisingly argued to keep the prison open. In a Senate floor speech, he specifically praised the conditions at the prison:
INHOFE: The detainee complex at GTMO is the only complex in the world that can safely and humanely hold these individuals who pose such a grave security risk to the US.
Several other of Inhofe’s colleagues have been singing Gitmo’s praises. House Minority John Boehner (R-OH) remarked last month, “I don’t know that there’s a terrorist treated better anywhere in the world than what has happened at Guantanamo.” “Well, I agree that its gotten an image. I don’t know that that’s all completely deserved,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) told MSNBC on Jan 22.
But according to a Guantanamo military lawyer, detainees are still being “beaten” and are living in horrific conditions. The Guardian reports today that Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley is demanding the release of her client, who is “dying” because of his treatment:
But first, Bradley, a US military attorney for 20 years, will reveal that Mohamed, 31, is dying in his Guantánamo cell and that conditions inside the Cuban prison camp have deteriorated badly since Barack Obama took office. Fifty of its 260 detainees are on hunger strike and, say witnesses, are being strapped to chairs and force-fed, with those who resist being beaten. At least 20 are described as being so unhealthy they are on a “critical list”, according to Bradley.
The detainee told Bradley that “he is ‘very scared’ of being attacked by guards, after witnessing a savage beating for a detainee who refused to be strapped down and have a feeding tube forced into his mouth.” “Guantánamo Bay is in the grip of a mass hunger strike and the numbers are growing; things are worsening, she said.
Sens. David Vitter (R-LA), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) were also on Inhofe’s delegation, but none are speaking about these disturbing conditions. In fact, Burr blogged that the conditions are “well thought out and in keeping with our Nation’s highest ideals.” Burr also had this puzzling assessment:
If anyone receives mistreatment at Guantanamo, it is the guard force. They must endure frequent verbal and physical attacks from detainees while maintaining the highest standard of care for those same individuals.
It is unclear how Inhofe and his conservative colleagues failed to see 50 detainees on hunger strike, some near death, while touring the prison. Conveniently, none of the senators alerted the public to these facts upon their return.
Thomas Friedman writes about the idea that building the possibility of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires substantial capacity-building on the Palestinian side:
That said, once Obama is able to think afresh about the Middle East, he will find that the Bush team has left an interesting legacy here: 140,000 U.S. soldiers doing nation-building in Iraq and one U.S. soldier — actually a three-star U.S. Army general — doing nation-building in the West Bank. We need a better balance. [...]
Palestinians need the same chance. You can’t have a two-state solution without two states, and today the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which still supports a two-state deal, doesn’t have the institutions of a state, particularly an effective police force. Therefore, my hope is that Obama will focus not only on peace plans from the top down, but also on institution-building from the bottom up. The best way to isolate Hamas in Gaza is to build the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank into a decent government with steadily expanding control over its territory.
He goes on to describe a promising initiative in this regard that’s already under way. And it certainly sounds like a good idea to me. But on another level, this goes back to the centrality of the Israeli settlements to the situation. Israel doesn’t just let its citizens wander out into Palestinian land and build houses. It also takes action to protect them. That means a series of security barriers, checkpoints, special no-Arabs-allowed roads, and other restrictions on Palestinian movement. Those are not only inconvenient for ordinary Palestinians and offensive to their dignity, they make it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to exercise effective authority over its territory.
And recall the issue I raised in my “cycle of excuses” post. One needs to recall that the lack of Palestinian Authority efficacy is not just a result of settlement activity, but of a deliberate U.S.-backed Israeli strategy of degrading Palestinian Authority institutional efficacy back in the “isolate Arafat” period. Back then, the U.S. endorsed the view that Israel couldn’t negotiate a final settlement deal until it had finished destroying Fatah’s security organs. Now we’re in danger of endorsing the view that Israel can’t negotiate a deal until we build them back up again. The truth is that we need to move on all these fronts. We need to freeze settlement activity. We need to start working on building Palestinian capabilities. And we need to move forward on finding again on top-down political agreement.
Unsurprisingly for someone who used to work in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, Michael Rubin’s latest bit of spadework for an eventual U.S.-Iran war is built upon a combination of questionable assumptions and untruths. I count two in the very first paragraph:
Within days of [Obama's] election, the State Department began drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to pave the way for face-to-face talks. Then, less than a week after taking office, Obama told al-Arabiya’s satellite network, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” The president dispatched former Defense Secretary William Perry to engage a high-level Iranian delegation led by a senior Ahmadinejad adviser.
Last week, Laura Rozen reported that, over the past year, Secretary Perry ““and a group of high-level U.S. nuclear nonproliferation specialists and U.S. experts on Iran held a series of meetings in European cities with Iranian officials under the auspices of the Pugwash group,” an international organization that focuses on preventing armed conflict. While it’s possible that Obama was aware of the Pugwash meetings, the claim that Perry was “dispatched” there by President Obama is simply false. Indeed, it’s unclear how President Obama could have “dispatched” Perry to conferences that had been ongoing since before Obama was elected. While these sorts of meetings can lead to official negotiations, they are not themselves official negotiations, despite Rubin’s attempt to treat them as such in order to buttress his claim that “Washington and Tehran have never stopped talking.”
Rubin’s claim that President Obama was “drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” is also false. According to the Guardian, which broke the story, Obama’s letter — the existence of which the administration has not confirmed — “would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.” This makes sense, as it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who actually controls Iranian foreign policy, a fact Rubin elides throughout his piece.
Miscasting Ahmadinejad as the Decider is a pretty common feature of the neoconservative discourse on Iran. It’s easy to understand why. The bombastic president makes a much better foil than the reclusive supreme leader, a more bankable villain for the neocons’ action-thriller approach to foreign policy. I’m pretty sure Rubin knows who’s in charge — unlike many of his neocon trenchmates, Rubin actually has some serious knowledge about the region of the world that they would like to transform through violence — so it’s unfortunate that he feels he needs to play at this kind of thing.
Rubin’s overall argument is that numerous past attempts to better the U.S.-Iran relationship have failed, so the U.S. should just take no for an answer. What then? Rubin doesn’t say. But, of course, we’re not talking about getting over a crush here. The United States can’t just go get drunk with its buddies and try to make itself feel better by establishing relations with some random other country it just met. We work in Iran’s neighborhood. We’re going to see Iran around a lot. Simply abandoning outright the goal of bettering the relationship has serious negative implications for the U.S., the Middle East, and the world, which is one reason why five former U.S. secretaries of state are in favor of increased U.S.-Iran talks.
Among other things, talks — at any level — are useful for probing areas of possible agreement, and for generating information about the perceptions and misperceptions of both sides. Hardline conservative elements in Iran are clearly nervous about this prospect. They sense the danger of losing one of their most treasured and effective propaganda tools: the fear of an aggressive, inflexible United States.
It’s true that Iran has responded unfavorably to past U.S. overtures, as Rubin is at pains to point out. But it’s also true, as Rubin for some reason neglects, that the U.S. has itself responded unfavorably to past Iranian overtures, most notoriously when President Bush thanked Iran for its help in Afghanistan by putting them in the “axis of evil.”
Willingness to talk is not a sign of America’s weakness, it’s a sign of our confidence and strength. It may be that, after a concerted effort, we discover that there is no accommodation to be reached between our two countries. But we haven’t nearly reached that point yet. And fear of rejection is not a sound basis for foreign policy.
Brendan Nyhan has more on the brain-dead appeals to ignorance at the heart of Michael Steele’s strident opposition to the inclusion in the stimulus of a small quantity of funds aimed at removing fish passage barriers from the nation’s streams.
For example, Nyhan reveals that back when Steele was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland serving under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich, the Steele-Ehrlich administration touted removal of fish passage barriers as an important policy priority. They explained that “migration barriers are anything in the stream that significantly interferes with the upstream movement of fish” and “unimpeded fish passage is especially important for anadromous fish which live much of their lives in tidal waters but must move into non-tidal rivers and streams to spawn.” They warn that fish passage barriers, if unaddressed, create a situation in which “the diversity of the fish community in an area will be reduced and the remaining biological community may be out of natural balance.” They even set up a hotline you could call to report a fish passage barrier so that the state could remove it.
Long story short, the economy requires fiscal stimulus. That requires us to identify projects on which to spend money that are (a) short-term in nature, and (b) useful. Barriers to fish migration are a bona fide environmental problem. Removing them is useful. And since removing them is a series of short-term endeavors, it works as stimulus.
The Los Angeles Times’ Faye Fiore and Mark Z. Barabak observe that “Rush Limbaugh has his grip on the GOP microphone,” having become “the politically wounded party’s unofficial leader.” Limbaugh — who has declared his sincere hope that Barack Obama will fail — has seen his “prominence and political import” increased.
One example of Limbaugh’s influence, unmentioned in the article, is the fact that he coined the messaging strategy for stimulus opponents, referring to the economic recovery package as “porkulus.” On his Jan. 23 radio show, Limbaugh said “it’s not a stimulus, it’s a porkulus.” On his Jan. 28 show, Limbaugh introduced the term to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA):
LIMBAUGH: You could call this the “porkulus.”
CANTOR: Right. (laughing) Let me tell you something. It is porkulus. That’s a great description.
Limbaugh cynically wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “This ‘porkulus’ bill is designed to repair the Democratic Party’s power losses from the 1990s forward, and to cement the party’s majority power for decades.”
Eventually, Limbaugh’s phrase trickled down to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who embraced the term. Watch it:
Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols wrote recently, “Every superhero needs an archenemy. President Barack Obama has yet to find one.” Rush Limbaugh is eager to acquire that role. And Obama has helped assign it to him when he made a private comment to conservative lawmakers about the right-wing radio host that quickly leaked out. “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,” Obama told top GOP leaders in a White House meeting.
Claire McCaskill seems to be softening her line on the Senate stimulus deal. She Tweets “Just saw Krugman’s comments on reduction in recov act. Question for him. Would no stimulus act be better than one thats 800 B instead of 900.” And follows up “Compromise had to happen or we would NOT have 60 votes. Period.” This may well all be true. But it’s quite a bit different from what she was saying yesterday when she was taking pride in having trimmed the package.
But bottom line, the Senate version of the bill is better than nothing. Brad DeLong says: “relative to the alternative of no bill we do boost employment in America a year from now by on the order of 3 million.”
The Senate bill is a lot better than doing nothing. But the House bill is a lot better than the Senate bill. Democratic Senators who understand that will be trying to use the conference committee process to produce something more like the House bill than the Senate bill. Or, even better, something better than the House bill. And they’ll be working to get Senate Republicans to vote for the conference report.
Meanwhile, I’ll say for the thousandth time that there’s a very strong case for eliminating the filibuster. The authors of the constitution never intended for their to be a supermajority requirement for legislation to pass the Senate, and until extremely recently there was no such requirement. The filibuster was a tolerable feature of the U.S. legislative process because it was rarely used. But over the past fifteen years—and especially over the past two years—it’s become routine and needs to be done away with.
The single most perverse thing about the Senate version of the stimulus package is that it made big reductions in federal aid to the states. In economic terms, this was just about the least-controversial idea you could put in a stimulus package. On the federal level, a recession leads to a reduction in tax revenues and an increase in expenditure on social welfare services. This creates an “automatic stabilizer” effect on the fiscal side of the equation. The combined efficacy of automatic stabilizers and monetary policy is one of the main reasons why we don’t normally see big fiscal stimulus packages to combat a downturn. But we’ve already done everything we can with conventional monetary policy, so we’re looking at fiscal policy.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to do in fiscal policy terms is to extent the automatic stabilizer effect that you see on the federal level down to the state level. Since states need to balance their budgets, recessions normally force them to engage in pro-cyclical cutbacks rather than counter-cyclical expansions. But the federal government can borrow money on states’ behalf to help them plug the gap. This is a good idea and it was in the House bill. On this morning’s Meet The Press, Barney Frank slammed the cutback on this state fiscal aid, observing “Money to go to the states to stop them from laying off cops and firefighters, money to help keep teachers going. Those are jobs.” Ali Frick reports that Senator John Ensign was having none of it:
Ensign (R-NV) — who began the show by saying that doing nothing would be better than passing this stimulus plan — insisted that states’ budgets are “bloated” and derided Frank’s concerns as “fearmongering,” denying that any teachers, cops, or firefighters would lose their jobs:
To get back to what Congressman Frank said, is that we’re going to be laying off teachers and firefighters. You know, that’s just fearmongering. We’re not going to be doing that in any of the states. … [The states’] budgets are bloated, the federal government’s budget is bloated. What we should be doing is cutting back.
The idea that it would be good for states to cut back in the midst of the recession is stupid. The idea that the recession won’t, absent federal aid, lead to layoffs of state employees such as teachers and firefighters is also stupid. But the idea that it’s simultaneously true that the reason we should eschew aid is that states need to cut back and also true that it’s fearmongering to warn of layoffs is doubleplus stupid. What does Ensign think cutbacks consist of? States will be reducing vital services. The cutbacks will have the immediate impact of reducing the incomes of laid-off families and beneficiaries of state programs. That will have an additional impact on businesses where the newly laid-off teachers and cops used to work.
And the reduced level of service will have its own bad economic impacts. Cutting back public safety budgets will mean fewer cops on the beat. That means more crime which will further reduce economic activity. State cutbacks to child care subsidies will make it harder for people who lose jobs to find and accept new ones. The cutbacks to mass transit services that are happening across the country will introduce additional rigidity into the labor market and reduce patronage of businesses that people are accustomed to reaching via transit. And in the most severe cases, cutbacks in assistant to the severely impoverished will have a decades-long impact on the well-being of their children.
In Ensign’s home state they’re talking about a fifteen percent cut in K-12 education. Does Gibbons really think that can be implemented without a detrimental impact on Nevada’s citizens and local economy?