Year in review: national politics in 2009 (part 1)

It took me a week longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished compiling links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage from last year. This post and part 2, coming later today, include stories on national politics, mostly relating to Congress and Barack Obama’s administration. Diaries reviewing Iowa politics in 2009 will come soon.

One thing struck me while compiling this post: on all of the House bills I covered here during 2009, Democrats Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack voted the same way. That was a big change from 2007 and 2008, when Blue Dog Boswell voted with Republicans and against the majority of the Democratic caucus on many key bills.

No federal policy issue inspired more posts last year than health care reform. Rereading my earlier, guardedly hopeful pieces was depressing in light of the mess the health care reform bill has become. I was never optimistic about getting a strong public health insurance option through Congress, but I thought we had a chance to pass a very good bill. If I had anticipated the magnitude of the Democratic sellout on so many aspects of reform in addition to the public option, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours writing about this issue. I can’t say I wasn’t warned (and warned), though.

Links to stories from January through June 2009 are after the jump. Any thoughts about last year’s political events are welcome in this thread.

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Naughty Judd Gregg made money off earmarks

Thanks to New Hampshire blogger Dean Barker I learned something new today about Senator Judd Gregg. According to the Associated Press,

President Barack Obama’s former nominee to become commerce secretary, Sen. Judd Gregg, steered taxpayer money to his home state’s redevelopment of a former Air Force base even as he and his brother engaged in real estate deals there, an Associated Press investigation found.

Gregg, R-N.H., personally has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Cyrus Gregg’s office projects at the Pease International Tradeport, a Portsmouth business park built at the defunct Pease Air Force Base, once home to nuclear bombers. Judd Gregg has collected at least $240,017 to $651,801 from his investments there, Senate records show, while helping arrange at least $66 million in federal aid for the former base.

Sadly, this isn’t unprecedented or even the most egregious example of members of Congress profiting from earmarks. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert sold real estate for nearly $2 million in profits after he secured federal earmarks to construct the Prairie Parkway near land he owned.

What looks corrupt in politics turns out to be legal more often than not, and that seems to be the case here. The AP says Senate ethics rules do not permit senators to direct earmarks to projects “solely” in order to benefit themselves or their family members financially, but of course Gregg could point to all kinds of benefits from redeveloping the former base.

“I am absolutely sure that in every way I’ve complied with the ethics rules of the Senate both literally and in their spirit relative to any investment that I’ve made anywhere,” Gregg told the AP. “These earmarks do not benefit me in any way, shape, manner financially, personally or in any other manner other than the fact that I’m a citizen of New Hampshire.”

Still, one wonders whether this story prompted Gregg to withdraw his nomination for Commerce Secretary. Whatever his reasons, we’re better off without him.

Members of Congress should stick to the usual form of legalized corruption and only seek earmarks that would personally profit their large campaign contributors.

No one raises ethical concerns about that behavior. As a bonus, donors who stand to gain from the earmarks may go the extra mile during the incumbent’s next tough campaign.

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The Curious Case of Fred P. Hochberg

Is this the face of the next Secretary of Commerce? There is a small but steady drumbeat in the far reaches of the blogosphere that hopes that may be the case.

Mr. Hochberg is the former dean of the Milano School for Management and Urban Policy in New York. Prior to that, he was a board member of the Human Rights Comission and the Port Authority of New York. He also served as President of his family's company, Lillian Vernon–during which time, he turned the small mail-order company into a publicly traded corporate success story.

During the Clinton administration, Hochberg served as deputy administrator for the Small Business Administration. He holds a  BA from NYU and an MBA from Columbia.

However, besides those qualifications, there is one thing that has put Mr. Hochberg on the radar: he's gay.

The Obama cabinet is wonderfully diverse. It has men, women, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. It has people of all ages from all parts of the country. It even has Republicans. However, one thing that it does not have–that no cabinet has ever had–is an openly gay member. 

After New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson withdrew his name from consideration for the post, a small but steady drumbeat began to surface on some GLBT blogs suggesting that Hochberg was the man for the job. However, the nomination of NH Sen. Judd Gregg, followed by Hochberg's appointment to head the US Import-Export Bank quickly dashed those hopes.

But, the Gregg debacle has opened new hope for Hochberg's boosters. The belief is that the best way for Obama to redeem himself after nominating the conservative Republican (rated 33% by the Human Rights Commission) is to nominate the moderate-liberal Hochberg (former President of the Human Rights Commission). Hochberg has not been confirmed to serve as Import-Export Bank president, and scuttlebutt is he would serve in the position if asked. 

Will Fred P. Hochberg be nominated to serve as Commerce Secretary? It's admittedly an outside chance in a field crowded with so many highly qualified possibilities. But if Obama wants to add another to his administration's growing list of “firsts”, it remains a curious possibility. 

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Gregg out at Commerce--Whom should Obama appoint?

Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew his name from consideration for Commerce Secretary in Barack Obama’s cabinet today. Politico posted the statement from Gregg’s office. Excerpt:

I want to thank the President for nominating me to serve in his Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. This was a great honor, and I had felt that I could bring some views and ideas that would assist him in governing during this difficult time. I especially admire his willingness to reach across the aisle.

However, it has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me. Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns. We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.

Obviously the President requires a team that is fully supportive of all his initiatives. […]

As a further matter of clarification, nothing about the vetting process played any role in this decision. I will continue to represent the people of New Hampshire in the United States Senate.

One wonders why Gregg only noticed today that his views on economic stimulus and the census would impede his effectiveness as a cabinet member. (The U.S. Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.)

Despite the last paragraph of Gregg’s statement, you have to wonder whether something popped up in the vetting process here.

Whatever his reasons, I welcome the news and hope that the third time will be the charm for President Obama as he tries to fill this position.

This thread is for any comments or speculation about why Gregg dropped out and who should replace him at Commerce. I don’t want the job to go to another conservative or another Republican.

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News flash: personnel shape policy

When Barack Obama nominated Timothy Geithner for Treasury Secretary and appointed Larry Summers to be the chief presidential economics adviser, I became very worried. Summers had a hand in some of Bill Clinton’s deregulation policies that have contributed to our current economic problems, and Geithner was a key architect of the Wall Street bailout last fall.

Here and at other blogs, some commenters urged me to “give Obama a chance–he hasn’t even been inaugurated yet.”

Geithner confirmed my worst fears today when he rolled out the new-and-improved bailout plan (using the second $350 billion tranche from the Troubled Assets Relief Program). Economist James Galbraith came up with the name Bad Assets Relief Fund (BARF) to describe Geithner’s plan.

Other bloggers have already explained why Geithner’s proposal is an unimaginably pricey gift to Wall Street bankers at the expense of the public interest. This diary by MyDD user bobswern hits all the main points, drawing on a front-page story in the New York Times and other sources.

Writing about how Geithner prevailed over presidential advisers like David Axelrod, who wanted to attach more strings to the taxpayer money Wall Street bankers would receive, David Sirota observed,

Interestingly, the divide inside the administration seems to hearken back to a divide discussed very early on in the formation of the administration – the one whereby progressives were put in strictly political positions, and zombie conservatives were put in the policymaking positions. In this case, more progressive politicos like Axelrod was overruled by corporate cronies like Geithner.

The good news is that at least there seems to be something of a debate inside the administration, however tepid. The bad news is what I and others predicted: namely, that progressives seem to have been ghettoized into the political/salesmanship jobs, the conservative zombies shaping policy aren’t interested in having any debate with them. Worse, we’re now learning that those zombies are as rigidly ideological as their initial policies seemed to suggest.

I stand by my prediction that Geithner will turn out to be one of Barack Obama’s worst appointments. I can’t fathom why Obama wants to “own” the very worst aspects of the Bush administration’s failed Wall Street bailout, while also depriving the government of cash needed for other domestic priorities.

The stock market fell sharply today, perhaps because investors have no confidence in Geithner’s scheme and perhaps because the compromise stimulus bill that passed the U.S. Senate came straight out of bizarro world (do click that link, you’ll enjoy it).

I hope Obama will recognize his mistake and let Geithner and Summers go within a year or so, but they’re already poised to do plenty of damage to his administration.

Speaking of bad appointments, isn’t it amazing that Obama didn’t even make Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire promise to vote for the stimulus bill in exchange for being named Commerce Secretary? Why would you put someone in a cabinet position with influence over economic policy if that person doesn’t even support the president’s stimulus plan?

Apparently Obama’s also considering making a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce the main presidential adviser on judicial appointments. I’ve long anticipated that judges appointed by Obama would be corporate-friendly, pro-choice moderates in the Stephen Breyer mode, but I never imagined that a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist would be in a position to recommend only judges who would favor business interests.

If Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen becomes Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Obama-Biden magnet is coming off my car.

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Grassley names his price

I learned at Iowa Independent that Senator Chuck Grassley told reporters on Wednesday that he would vote for the economic stimulus “regardless of what else is in the bill” if the Senate approved an amendment providing for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 4 percent interest.

He remained critical of the spending in the bill:

“People at the grassroots see it as a lot of spending and not very much stimulus,” Grassley said. “Somebody thinks they’re fooling the people of this country with this package, but they aren’t.”

Senator Tom Harkin’s office put out a statement on Tuesday listing some of the proposed spending that would benefit Iowans:

February 3, 2009

HARKIN: $1.5 BILLION INCLUDED FOR IOWA IN SENATE STIMULUS PACKAGE

Washington,  D.C. – U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today announced that there are more than $1.5 billion in critical investments for  Iowa included in the Senate version of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These investments will create and save jobs; help with budget shortfalls to prevent deep cuts in basic services such as health, education, and law enforcement; cut taxes for working families and invest in the long-term health of our economy.

“The economy is now shedding an average of 17,000 jobs a day, and new foreclosures average 9,000 a day.  We are facing what could be the deepest, longest recession since the Great Depression.  We must act quickly and boldly,”  said Harkin.  “This bill will create jobs now while also laying the foundation for a stronger economy that works for all Americans in the future.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $888 billion in investments and tax cuts.  Of this total, $694 billion will enter the economy by the end of Fiscal year 2010, meaning that 78 percent of the monies allocated will reach the American people by September 30, 2010, providing an immediate boost to the overall economy and creating an estimated four million jobs nationwide.

Below are the approximate investments Iowa could see if the Senate bill is passed and signed into law by the president.  These amounts only include major accounts that are allocated by formula, and do not include the considerable funds that will be allocated competitively by the executive branch.

Nutrition Programs

·         $2.3 million for School Lunch Programs

·         $109 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

·         $776,000 for the Emergency Food Assistance Program

Homeland Security Programs

·         $639,000 for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program

Clean Water Programs

·         $24 million for the Drinking Water Fund

·         $54 million for the Clean Water Fund

Transportation Funding

·         $389 million for  Iowa ‘s Highway fund

·         $46 million for Transit Funding

Housing Programs

·         $7.6 million for public housing capital

·         $14.8 million for HOME funding

·         $16.8 million for homelessness prevention

Law Enforcement / Crime funding

·         $14 million for Byrne/JAG funding

·         $978,000 for crime victim programs

·         $1 million to protect children against internet crimes

·         $3.2 million to assist women who are victims of violence

Energy Programs

·         $6.6 million for  Iowa ‘s energy program

·         $48.6 million for weatherization programs

Labor, Health and Human Service and Education Programs

·         $18.1 million for Child Care and Development Block Grants

·         $5.2 million for Head Start

·         $625.6 million for the state stabilization fund

·         $65.4 million for Title 1 programs

·         $140.1 million for Special Education Part B Grants

·         $46.1 million for Higher Education Facilities

·         $1.6 million for Adult Employment and Training

·         $78.7 million for School modernization

·         $5 million for education technology

·         $2.2 million for Community Service Block Grants

·         $441,000 for Senior Meals

·         $3.9 million for Employment Service Grants

·         $5 million for Dislocated Worker Grants

·         $5.4 million for vocational rehabilitation programs

·         $7.2 million for immunization programs

 

Some of these programs yield more “bang for the buck” than others, and there’s an argument to be made that the stimulus bill has too much of a grab-bag quality. Yesterday Daily Kos user TocqueDeville lamented the fact that Democrats put together a spending bill instead of “a big, unifying vision for the future – a Rebuilding America Act.” I agree with much of the critique and would have liked to see some different spending priorities.

That said, even an imperfect spending bill will do more to stimulate the economy than the tax cuts favored by Republicans.

I don’t know the specifics of the amendment Grassley supports, but in general making low-rate mortgages more accessible would be good. It was stupid as well as unethical for Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other wise men of Wall Street to encourage so many Americans to buy adjustable-rate mortgages.

I was surprised to see Grassley say that the low-rate mortgage provision would be enough to win his vote for the stimulus. Senator Judd Gregg got a post in Barack Obama’s cabinet and still won’t vote for the bill.

If Grassley ends up voting yes on the stimulus, the wingnuts will go ballistic, but what can they do other than add a line to Grassley’s entry on the Iowa Defense Alliance “Wall of Shame”?

In other stimulus-related news, Obama published an op-ed in the Washington Post making the case for this package. Excerpt:

This plan is more than a prescription for short-term spending — it’s a strategy for America’s long-term growth and opportunity in areas such as renewable energy, health care and education. And it’s a strategy that will be implemented with unprecedented transparency and accountability, so Americans know where their tax dollars are going and how they are being spent.

In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis — the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. And because we have, our health-care costs still rise faster than inflation. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. Our children still study in schools that put them at a disadvantage. We’ve seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail.

It’s a start, but I agree with early Obama supporter Theda Skocpol. Obama mishandled this effort by making bipartisanship (instead of saving the economy) his measure of success. He can undo some of the damage by going directly to the people to make the case for the stimulus. But unfortunately, the Republicans still have the upper hand if they vote against the bill and blame the president for not giving them enough input.

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