Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Pakistan's Industry of Violence

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad
AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad I was at an uncle’s house in Peshawar a couple of months ago when the windows began to rattle. One of my youngest cousins walked towards them, peering out nervously. “It’s an earthquake,” she said almost hopefully. I looked at her father who shook his head slowly, but only when his daughter had turned back to the window. It was as if he wanted her to believe that the quivering earth was the result of a mere natural disaster. And then the windows began to clatter again. The 14-year-old slunk onto the couch beside her father. Her sisters and mother filed in around the TV, scarves draped over their heads, lips moving in prayer. It didn’t take long for live coverage to begin. The site of the attack was the city airport, just a couple miles from where we were. Even more disconcerting, the rockets began to fire where, just a few minutes prior, my aunt had driven on her way home. Once we’d been watching long enough that the news reports had become repetitive—the same...

How to Stop the Next IRS Scandal

Flickr/Adam Fagen
T he root of the recent scandal at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—in which the agency admitted to singling out Tea Party groups for special scrutiny—is simple: terrible campaign-finance laws. Here’s the story: The IRS must determine whether organizations applying for 501(c)(4) non-profit status—a classification that exempts you from paying taxes—meet the requirements. As election-law scholar Rick Hasen explains, the central criterion is that “ campaign activity cannot be your primary purpose. ” Unfortunately, the law gives the IRS little guidance in how it should determine whether this is a group’s “primary purpose,” and Congress has given the IRS insufficient staffing to really do the vetting properly. The shortage of resources was only made more dire by the explosion of these types of organizations after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. What they apparently did in response to the avalanche of 501(c)(4) applications was to improperly use what seem to be partisan...

Food Stamps Get Licked by Cuts

AP Images/Carolyn Caster
This week, the Senate and House agriculture committees sent bills that would guide farming policy for the next five years to both legislative chambers for a vote. The vast majority of the legislation's outlined spending goes to a program that has proven a rich target for a Washington drunk on spending cuts—the food stamp program. The House bill would cut $20 billion over five years from the program’s $80 billion-a-year budget . The Senate's version would trim $4.4 billion from food stamps. The House bill gets most of its cuts by getting rid of program that allowed states to streamline the ways they provide assistance to the poor; the Senate bill would make changes to the program that would cut some people off food stamps.* In true bureaucratic fashion, the program has an unwieldy name: “Categorical Eligibility.” Conservative lawmakers call it “automatic eligibility” to make it sound as though people who aren’t poor are finding food stamp cards in their mailboxes. In reality, the...

Ringside Seat: NObamacare or Bust

As any parent knows, small children often believe that when you've been denied something you want, repeating your request over and over will eventually produce the result you're after. It works on occasion, if the stakes are low enough, the parents are weak of will, and the child is particularly exasperating. Fortunately, this behavior usually disappears around age eight or nine. Today, President Barack Obama held a joint press conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a short breather from their talks on how to deal with a little problem called Syria. Not, however, if you're the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives, a group of people who are, all evidence to the contrary, full-grown adults. Today, House Republicans cleared their schedule for the eagerly awaited 37th vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (or 38th vote, by some counts—it's hard to keep track). Was 36 not enough? Heavens, no. As Joshua Green wrote , "At this point, repealing the health...

Virginia Is More Moderate, But It Doesn't Help McAuliffe

Mou-ikkai/Flickr
mou-ikkai/Flickr Here’s the thing about Virginia gubernatorial contests: More so than even midterm elections, they have abysmally low turnout. From 2008 to 2009, for example, more than 46 percent of voters left the electorate, and overwhelmingly, those voters were African Americans, Latinos, and young people. This gives Republicans a built-in advantage, which is why—in most polls of this year’s race—Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has the lead over his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The last several surveys of the race, however, have shown McAuliffe with a small but meaningful lead. In the latest from Quinnipiac University, for example, McAuliffe leads 43 percent to Cuccinelli’s 38 percent, an improvement over the last poll , where he trailed by two points, 40 percent to 38 percent. What’s more, a new Washington Post poll shows a Virginia that has moved closer to the center of American politics, which should advantage McAuliffe, who—if he has an ideology at all—is the gauzy,...

President Obama Will Not Be "Going Bulworth"

Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Times story this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him." This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave...

Damage Control!

White House/Flickr
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza In the last 24 hours, President Obama has gone full throttle on damage control on the three scandals that have emerged over the last week. To address concerns over Benghazi—which resurfaced last week, following a new (mistaken) report on the administration’s approach—the White House released 100 pages of emails made between the government agencies responsible for drawing up talking points for the attacks. Far from showing a cover-up, or an attempt to protect the president’s re-election bid, they confirm the administration’s long-standing position—that White House officials weren’t involved in framing talking points. This won’t kill Republican conspiracy mongering, but it should lead journalists to dismiss Benghazi as a “scandal” worthy of heightened scrutiny. Likewise, in a press conference yesterday afternoon, Obama moved to deal with the controversy at the Internal Revenue Service by dismissing the acting commissioner, Steven Miller. Now,...

Wall Street's Regulatory Rapture

The Balance Sheet is our daily economics newsletter. To subscribe, go here . The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) will make official a Wall Street victory today when it announces softened regulation on derivatives trading. After pressure from bank lobbyists, a rule that would have increased competition in the market for derivatives—financial products that derive their value from an underlying asset—could now empower a few big financial institutions to rule that risky space. Ninety percent of the now $700 billion derivatives market that nearly brought down AIG and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis is currently controlled by the five biggest banks, yet derivatives are still traded in largely unregulated shadow markets. While a provision in the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law was designed to force derivatives onto regulatory platforms resembling public exchanges, implementation was left to the CFTC. Today's approval of the rule helps fulfill that duty, but opponents worry...

Five Voting Fights You’ll Care About Come Election Time

AP Images/Dave Martin
Remember last year when we all cared about voting policies? Back then, newspapers were filled with updates on different states’ legal battles over strict voter ID—the laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot. Republicans pushed the laws, ostensibly to combat fraud, but Democrats and voting-rights advocates argued that the actual goal was to suppress likely Democratic voters, since poor and nonwhite communities disproportionately lack ID. With Republicans controlling an unprecedented number of state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party wave, voter-ID bills began popping up across the country in 2011 and 2012. Similar battles emerged when some states tried to remove names from voter rolls too close to an election. Then there was early voting; Republicans, most notably in Florida and Ohio, cut back early voting days and hours, and voters in several Florida counties faced hours-long lines. Then Obama won, created a commission to find solutions and everyone stopped...

Benghazi Was Neither a Terrorist Attack Nor an Act of Terror

Pinocchios for everyone! (Vladimir Menkov/Wikimedia Commons)
I am hereby declaring 99 Pinocchios on Barack Obama, all the people who work for him, everyone in the Republican party, and most everyone in the press who has reported on Benghazi. This is about what has to be one of the most inane disagreements in the history of American politics, the argument about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" or a "terrorist attack." Incredibly, people are still bickering over this. The other day Darrell Issa expressed his outrage that Obama had, in his diabolical attempt to cover up the incident, used the phrase "act of terror," which, let's be honest, is almost like saying, "Way to go, al Qaeda!", instead of using the far, far, far more condemnatory phrase "terrorist attack." It's like the difference between saying "steaming pile of bullshit" when you ought to say "steaming bullshit pile"—anyone who can't tell the difference between the two obviously can't be trusted to run the country. Then the ordinarily reasonable Glenn Kessler,...

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...

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