Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Ringside Seat: Yeah, Functioning Government!

Just this evening, the Senate voted to confirm Marilyn Tavenner as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the many appointed positions in the federal government, this one doesn’t sound exciting. And it isn’t. But it is important. As head of CMS, Tavenner will be responsible for overseeing both programs and implementing large parts of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care reform law. It’s a critical position, and it’s the first time since 2006 that it has been filled. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been leadership—Tavenner herself has been acting director since December 2011—but the Senate has not confirmed a director since 2006, when Mark McClellan resigned during George W. Bush’s second term. And it’s not as if the administration hasn’t tried to get a nominee confirmed—President Obama nominated Donald Berwick, and when the Senate refused to act, installed him via a recess appointment which expired two years ago. Why note the Senate’s...

Sorting Through the Scandals

Jay Carney, punching bag.
Every administration has its scandals, but what's different about what's happening to the Obama administration is the confluence of two separate scandalish stories converging at the same time. Or maybe two and a half; were it not for the timing, the Justice Department's pursuit of the Associated Press over leaks of information related to terrorist activity would never be called a "scandal," and I doubt Republicans would even have bothered getting mad about it (I'll get back to that in a moment). The whole thing is complicated by the fact that Benghazi and the IRS are so different, in ways that complicate the Republicans' task. In their minds, the two stories are part of a seamless web of corruption, two symptoms of the same underlying disease. But that only makes sense if you already believed that Barack Obama was a villain bent on destroying the nation, and most Americans don't. The trouble for Republicans is that one scandal reaches to the top levels of the administration, but it's...

Is the IRS "Scandal" Even a Scandal?

Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect
Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect The details of the current scandal at the Internal Revenue Service are straightforward, which might be surprising, given the reputation of the agency. In early 2010 —as right-wing opposition to President Obama reached a fever pitch—an IRS office in Cincinnati, Ohio saw a sudden sudden influx in applications for 501(c)4 status. That’s the IRS’s designation for “social welfare” organizations, which exist—ostensibly—to provide a service that benefits the broad public. As Josh Barro notes for Bloomberg, this can include lobbying and political activity, as long as that’s not the primary purpose. These groups aren’t required to pay taxes on their income, nor are they required to reveal their donors, which makes them an excellent vehicle for ideologically-motivated action—hence groups like American Crossroads, which is listed as a 501(c)4. The large majority of these applications were for Tea Party organizations—the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens...

The DOJ's Freedom of Speech Breach

WikiMedia commons
O n Monday, news broke that federal officials had secretly seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters. AP President Gary Pruitt reacted with understandable anger, calling the seizure "an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters." Is Pruitt right? There are two questions that need to be answered. Was the seizure legal? And, if so, was it justified? The answer to to the first question, at least based on what we know now, is "probably." A subpoena for records as part of an investigation, as opposed to a search warrant, does not require judicial approval. Intuitively, it may seem as if the First Amendment should shield the press from government investigators. But, at least under current Supreme Court doctrine, this isn't the case. In the 1972 landmark case Branzburg v. Hayes , the Court held that "[t]he First Amendment does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation that all citizens have to respond to a grand jury...

No More Playing With Money

AP Images/Peter Dejong
If you’re looking for the personification of the Washington economic establishment, you could do a lot worse than Fred Bergsten. National Security Council economics deputy under Henry Kissinger (at age 27), then head of the international desk and the monetary portfolio in Jimmy Carter’s Treasury Department, and from 1981 through last year the founding director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Bergsten has been a forceful advocate for what used to be called the Washington Consensus: an unflagging belief in the virtues of free trade and fiscal discipline. This Thursday, he delivers what looks to be at least a semi-valedictory at the Peterson Institute, the annual Stavros Niarchos lecture. Rather than celebrate the virtues of free trade—a topic he says (in an advanced text of his speech) that he considered and then rejected—he devotes his talk instead to an analysis of the devastating effect that currency manipulation has had on the American and other economies, and...

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay
Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes. The two hearings mark the first time Congress has explicitly scrutinized drones as a stand-alone issue; previous discussions were wrapped up in confirmation hearings and Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster in March. But in narrowing the focus of the debate over drones to encompass only the moral gray areas of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, Congress is failing to ask more important questions. There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. Beyond the disputed numbers of noncombatants killed, there are psychological consequences to consider as well. In the Senate hearing, Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni writer and activist, spoke eloquently of the heartbreak and fear that drones cause...

Teachers Left Behind

Press Association via AP Images
AP Photo/Randy Snyder K athleen Knauth has had a rough school year. The principal of Hillview Elementary, near Buffalo, New York, has spent so much time typing teacher evaluations, entering data, and preparing for standardized testing, she barely had a minute to do what she used to do in her first 12 years of being a principal—drop in on classes, address parents’ concerns, or get to know students. When a school social worker stopped by her office a few months back to get Knauth’s take on which children might need her help, she realized she had hit a new low. “Normally I’d say, ‘This one’s grandma is seriously ill. This child is going through a huge custody battle. This one has clothes that are too small. I could reel off six to eight things,” says Knauth. “But this year, I had nothing.” Two weeks ago, after she was asked to raise the standards her students would be expected to meet for a fifth time this year, Knauth decided to resign and sent a public letter explaining that the...

Ringside Seat: Down Goes the Deficit

In case it slipped your mind during all this talk of scandal and impeachment, official Washington has spent the last couple of years gnashing its teeth about the budget deficit. Even as European austerity policies threw the continent into a period of extended despair, Republicans and their allies in the well-appointed conference rooms of "centrist" think tanks told us sternly that unemployment would have to wait; the most immediate crisis was the deficit. Well today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued its latest deficit projection , and lo and behold, it turns out that mercilessly slashing spending and allowing some modest tax increases has an impact. They project the deficit will be $642 billion this year, lower than it has been since 2008. Not only that, the CBO's projections of future Medicare spending have been reduced as well. Hard as it might be to wrap your head around the idea, there has been some good news of late on the fiscal front. So here's a bold prediction:...

Of Cover-Ups and Crimes

Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman (White House photo). These guys knew from cover-ups.
Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts. And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason...

Scandal Makers

AP Photo
AP Photo I n case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but internal deliberations being...

Free to Work, Free to Marry

AP Photo/Jim Mone
AP Photo/Jim Mone Thousands filled the Minnesota State Capitol as they waited for word that the Senate had passed the gay marriage bill yesterday. L ast month, Rhode Island came over into the marriage equality column. Last week, it was Delaware . Yesterday, it was Minnesota. There’s progress expected in New Jersey, Illinois, and at the Supreme Court. Pick your favorite cliché or metaphor about winning—being on a hot streak, passing the tipping point, bending the arc of history—and feel free to apply. And yet few Americans are aware that in 29 states, you can still be fired for putting a same-sex partner’s picture on your desk, or rejected for a job because the hiring manager doesn’t like homos. That’s right—it’s perfectly legal in most of the country to fire, refuse to hire, demote, or otherwise discriminate against someone for being gay. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal to fire people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, has...

Ringside Seat: Taxghazi

Within hours after the news broke that the Internal Revenue Service singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status for extra scrutiny, conservatives were already complaining that the story wasn't getting enough play in the media. "Imagine if this had happened under President Bush!" they cried. For starters, it actually did. In that case, it was the FBI, not the IRS, that went after liberal groups under the pretense that they might be harboring al Qaeda terrorists (after all, it's well known that the first thing a sleeper cell does when they get to the U.S. is maintain their low profile by participating in an anti-war protest). Now that there are finally a couple of Obama administration "scandals" for conservatives and the media to chew on, we're going to be hearing a lot of comparisons to what went on in prior administrations, so it will be useful to get our history straight. One Republican after another has declared the Benghazi...

There Still Aren't Any Racists in America

Heritage Foundation
Byron York’s interview with former Heritage Foundation scholar Jason Richwine is illuminating, not because of any new information—it’s well-established that Richwine has written for white nationalist websites and drew ideas and inspiration from “race realists” like Charles Murray—but because Richwine follows the pattern of everyone outed for their racism. He denies it. Strenuously: Richwine knew he was in trouble the minute the first story broke. “The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life,” he says. “Once that word is out there, it’s very difficult to recover from it, even when it is completely untrue.” […] Remember, this isn’t an idle accusation—Richwine is part of a community of race and IQ researchers who maintain that IQ differences between racial groups are partially explained by genetics, despite the fact that there’s nothing genetic that makes someone “black” or “white.” It’s historical and social circumstance that places Barack...

The IRS Controversy and the Tax-Exempt Charade

Flickr/onkelshark
As we're learning more about the IRS giving heightened scrutiny to conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status, we should make one thing clear: If what we've heard so far holds up, the people involved should probably get fired, and new safeguards should be put in place to make sure nothing like it happens again. And let it be noted that liberal publications, at least the ones I've seen, have all taken that position and have been discussing this story at length. Now, let's see if we can understand the context in which this happened. There's an irony at work here, which is that it may well be that the IRS employees involved were trying to obey the spirit of the law but ended up violating the letter of the law, while for the organizations in question it was the opposite: they were trying to violate the spirit of the law, but probably didn't violate the letter of the law. Let's take the first part, the IRS employees. When a group files for tax-exempt status, the IRS investigates it,...

Labor's Plan B

Flickr/ Fibonacci Blue
AP Photo/Mark Kegans A week ago, labor-rights group Working America launched FixMyJob.com. The text of the site reads a bit like an infomercial: “Tough day at work? Are you feeling overworked, underpaid, unsafe or disrespected by your boss?” But instead of selling a new set of knives, the writers are hawking organizing skills. “Our tool can help you identify problems in your workplace and give you info about what others have done in similar situations.” The famous raised fist of labor is sideways, holding a wrench. The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace. “We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we...

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