Political Animal


March 01, 2015 5:49 PM A 50th Anniversary in Song

In the coming week we will learn what PM Netanyahu has to say to Congress, hear the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on King v Burwell, reach another deadline for funding of the Department of Homeland Security and celebrate one of the most historic moments of the Civil Rights Era in Selma, Alabama. An awful lot of the news today is actually preparation for those events.

So I’d like to end this weekend’s blogging by joining Leonard Pitts on a lighter note in celebrating another 50th anniversary.

There are sounds it feels like you’ve known forever, sounds that have been in your ear so long, it’s hard to believe they were ever new. One of those sounds is this:

James Jamerson thumps a heartbeat on the bass. Robert White’s guitar corkscrews out in reply. And the immortal David Ruffin sings, in a voice of sweetness shadowed by sorrow, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.”
Hard to believe that sound was ever new, but it was. Released four days before Christmas in 1964, My Girl by the Temptations reached the top of the pop charts in the first week of March — 50 years ago this week. Maybe you remember hearing it during that portentous late winter when Malcolm X had just been killed, and Martin Luther King’s forces were gathering on a bridge in a town called Selma.
If so, you are probably humming it right now, recalling the airtight harmonies and the way the horns and strings danced elegant pirouettes of sound.
Or maybe you were born years later, during the energy crisis, or around the time of the Challenger disaster or even in that more-recent era when Bryant Gumbel found it necessary to ask Katie Couric, “What is Internet, anyway?” Doesn’t matter. You’re humming it, too.
My Girl is one of those songs everybody knows. It is the most perfect thing ever recorded.

As an old-timer, I happen to agree with Pitts. You young whipper-snappers (see how old I am?) are free to disagree. But you’ll have to make the case that your alternative will mark your generation as gracefully and enduringly as My Girl.

March 01, 2015 4:10 PM Be Prepared For Bibi

In a couple of days, our news media is going to be consumed with what Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Congress about a possible deal with Iran on nuclear weapons. As a reminder, Netanyahu has said that he “will do everything and will take any action to foil this bad and dangerous agreement.”

Your assignment - should you chose to accept it - is to be prepared by informing yourself about what some experts have said in support of the current negotiations and potential agreement. My purpose is to provide you with that information.

Paul Pillar: Get Over It: There’s No Better Deal on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Robert Einhorn: Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Breakout

David Ignatius: A Compelling Argument on Iran

William Perry, Sean O’Keefe, Adm. James Stavridis and Joe Reeder: Let’s Make the Deal With Iran

Jeffrey Simpson: An Iran Opportunity Not to Be Missed

And finally, I’ll close with something Jeffrey Goldberg wrote this week.

But let’s look at what would happen if Netanyahu “wins” this battle. [Martin] Indyk lays out a depressing scenario:

“What happens if the president succeeds in doing a deal despite the speech of the prime minister?” he asks. “Instead of the United States and Israel talking about ways to provide strategic reassurance to Israel, there’s going to be an ongoing fight over this deal. And what if the prime minister then succeeds in killing the deal? How will the president relate to the destruction of one of his signature policy initiatives? And if the sanctions then collapse, as seems likely, and Iran continues moving towards a nuclear weapon, how does the prime minister propose to stop Iran? He will certainly manage in the process to create the impression that he wants the United States to go to war with Iran.”

The common theme in all the articles above is that - while the deal that emerges is not likely to be perfect - it will be far superior to any alternative that is actually possible. The bar Netanyahu wants to set would be impossible to reach and therefore, would leave war as the only option - which is 100% unacceptable. That’s why Ignatius says that these are “the most important diplomatic negotiations of the last several decades.”

March 01, 2015 2:39 PM The Party of Personal Responsibility Has Become the Party of Perpetual Victims

Ed Kilgore has an interesting article in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly about what we might call the “Palinization of the Republican Party.”

St. Joan of the Tundra’s distinctive contribution to the conservative cause was not simply to serve as a lightning rod for resentment of the “liberal elites” that supposedly run the country, but to invite ridicule that she then turned into a sense of victimization and self-pity and a hankering for vengeance.

Does anyone else notice the circularity of that process? First of all, you invite ridicule. A prime example would be the invention of the notorious “War on Christmas.” When your opponent reacts as expected, you claim victimhood and put out the call for vengeance - thus ensuring another round.

Back in 1968 Stephen Karpman, M.D. came up with a name for this pattern. He called it the Drama Triangle.

Unlike theories about personality preferences, this one has always made more sense to me as a world view rather than a description of different styles. In other words, either one sees the world as made up of victims, persecutors and rescuers - or not. Once someone adopts this world view, they join the triangle and define both their own actions and those of others via these three options.

The one thing these three roles are designed to avoid is any sense of personal responsibility. The victim is the helpless target of both the persecutor and rescuer. The persecutor blames everyone else for their circumstances. And the rescuer is there to protect the victim from the persecutor. The reason Karpman called it a Drama Triangle is because this way of interacting produces a lot of heat, but no light.

It is within this frame that conservatives couch their attacks (the persecutor) against women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, the social safety net, etc. from a position of victimization. The conversation for them is never about marriage equality for LGBT. It’s about how gay marriage makes them victims. Those who promote gay rights are therefore cast in the role of persecutors. And that enables conservatives to become the persecutors of gay rights activists. Do you see the endless drama?

In some iterations of the Drama Triangle, the rescuer is called the “savior” - which might give you some clue as to how that role is often filled by the religious right. But in the end, defining oneself (or others) as victims immediately triggers the need for rescue since victims are powerless to do anything for themselves. Attempting to rescue others then becomes a way to avoid taking responsibility for oneself.

The mistake liberals make too often is to join the drama triangle rather than avoid this dance altogether. The kryptonite to drama is personal power/responsibility. We have choices about when/how to react or to not react at all. Similarly, we can reject a knee-jerk attempt to blame others (being the persecutor) and refuse to see ourselves as the helpless victims of Republican antics. Finally, we can empower those who are affected, rather than assume they need to be rescued by us.

Remember in 2008 when the President and his campaign were dubbed “No Drama Obama?” That’s precisely because they refused to play this game. While they were willing to take issues head-on, they avoided playing the role of perpetrator and never allowed themselves to be the victims of other’s attacks. Here’s Barack Obama basically giving what amounts to a master class in how to avoid the drama triangle in under a minute.

March 01, 2015 12:24 PM President Obama’s Impact on Racism

A lot of pundits have suggested that the presidency of Barack Obama has polarized the racial divide in this country. And there’s some truth to that. At no point in my adult life has race been more front and center as an issue than its been over the last 6 years. And so the question becomes whether this President has moved us forward or backwards when it comes to the racial divide in this country.

From the 1970’s through the early 2000’s, most white people could simply ignore the question of racism. There were times it came out of the woodwork and surprised us - like the reaction to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trail. But if we were successfully able to segregate ourselves from the every day lives of black/brown people, we could reach the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement had tackled that problem and it was time to move on. When it came to politics, that included both white conservatives and liberals.

Then we elected our first black president. Leonard Pitts suggests that has led us to a moment that resembles something in our recent past.

Six years ago, there was wistful talk of a “post-racial America.” But today, we find ourselves in the most-racial America since the O.J. Simpson debacle. It’s not just income inequality, voter suppression and the killing of unarmed black boys. It’s also the ongoing inability of too many people to see African Americans as part of the larger, American “us.”

Most of them no longer say it with racial slurs, but they say it just the same. They say it with birther lies and innuendo of terrorist ties. They say it by saying “subhuman mongrel.” They say it by questioning Obama’s faith. They say it as Rudy Giuliani said it last week. They say it because they have neither the guts to say nor the self-awareness to understand what’s really bothering them:
How did this bleeping N-word become president of the United States?…
The day the towers fell, Giuliani seemed a heroic man. But he has since made himself a foolish and contemptible one, an avatar of white primacy struggling to contend with its own looming obsolescence.
And the question once famously put to Joe McCarthy seems to apply: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Those same events led Ezra Klein to write about Obama Derangement Syndrome.

But then, that’s why Obama Derangement Syndrome is different than Bush Derangement Syndrome: it’s not really about Obama’s presidency. It’s about Obama himself. It’s about his blackness, his father’s foreignness, his strange name, his radical pastor. Obama’s presidency is in many ways ordinary, but the feelings it evokes are not. There is something about seeing Obama in the White House that deeply unsettles his critics. Obama Derangement Syndrome rationalizes those feelings.

I don’t know that much about Klein’s personal life other than that he’s young, smart, liberal and wonky. So I don’t want to make this all about him. But for the cohort he represents, it’s obviously pretty difficult to continue to ignore the reality of racism in this country as we watch the reaction to this President.

And so I am reminded of what Derrick Jensen wrote in The Culture of Make Believe.

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

The presidency of Barack Obama has threatened the normalization of racism that allowed too many white people in this country to ignore it for the last 40 years. It’s now out in the open and time for us to reckon with it.

And so I’ll repeat the question Pitts asked: “Have you no sense of decency, sir/madame?

March 01, 2015 10:42 AM The GOP’s Obsession With Words

I am truly fascinated with the GOP’s obsession with words over actions. It actually goes back much further than the recent nonsense about what President Obama calls the members of ISIS.

Does anyone remember this?

Even people who acknowledge George Bush’s failings point to that as one of the great moments of his presidency. But by 2002, here’s what he said at a press conference.

Asked about the hunt for Bin Laden at a March, 2002 press conference, Bush said, “I truly am not that concerned about him. I am deeply concerned about Iraq.” “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you,” Bush added.

By that time, President Bush wanted to invade Iraq and wasn’t that interested in the “people who knocked these buildings down.” That task was left to President Obama.

Ten years after 9/11 came the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Republicans immediately became obsessed with whether or not President Obama had called the perpetrators “terrorists.” It has never mattered much to them that - under this President’s leadership - the U.S. captured the mastermind of that attack.

And now, Republicans have convinced themselves that President Obama doesn’t take the threat from ISIS seriously because he won’t call them “Islamic terrorists.” Recently Peggy Noonan attempted to argue why that is important. She draws her case mostly from an article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic titled: What ISIS Really Wants. But when Noonan is done quoting what Wood says about the religious beliefs of ISIS, she turns to what he has to say about how to defeat them.

A U.S. invasion and occupation, Mr. Wood argues, would be a propaganda victory for them, because they’ve long said the U.S. has always intended to embark on a modern-day crusade against Islam. And if a U.S. ground invasion launched and failed, it would be a disaster.

The best of bad options, Mr. Wood believes, is to “slowly bleed” ISIS through air strikes and proxy warfare. The Kurds and the Shiites cannot vanquish them, but they can “keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand.” That would make it look less like “the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammed.” As time passed ISIS could “stagnate” and begin to sink. Word of its cruelties would spread; it could become another failed state.

Hmmm…that sounds exactly like President Obama’s “degrade and destroy” strategy.

Noonan simply ignores all that and - in the end - suggests that we should be respectful of ISIS.

It is, ironically, disrespectful not to name what they are, and what they are about.

Talk about PC madness!!!!

I have to admit that when I approach all of this from a logical standpoint, my head starts spinning. That’s when I know it’s time to leave the logic aside and go in search of root causes.

Of course part of this is fueled by those who want to suggest that because President Obama doesn’t use the words they prefer - he’s not one of us. That ignites the underlying racist fears of the GOP base.

But it also feeds into the desire for a “holy war” of Christianity vs Islam - the very same thing ISIS wants. That is exactly why President Obama’s words of caution at the National Prayer Breakfast were so important - and why his refusal to buy into this dangerous language is exactly the right call.

March 01, 2015 8:33 AM Too Big to Fail Banks Are Shrinking

One of the issues populists on the left like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown are raising is that we need to break up the big banks that were primarily responsible for the financial crisis because Americans don’t want to be on the hook for further bailouts of “too big to fail” financial institutions.

Their contention is that the Wall Street reforms contained in Dodd/Frank didn’t go far enough. But it looks like perhaps they should have been more patient.

Global regulators have issued dozens of rules aimed at making the biggest banks safer. That’s leading to another result some wanted: making them shrink…

Increasingly strict capital rules over the past three years may be forcing the breakup of the financial supermarkets built in the decade before the financial crisis. Lenders, unable to use borrowed money to fund as much of their business as they once did, have cut profitability targets and are weighing more drastic actions to meet them.
“We’re beginning to see discussions that these capital charges are sufficiently large it’s causing those firms to think seriously about whether or not they should spin off some of their enterprises to reduce their systemic footprint,” Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen told the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. “And frankly, that’s exactly what we want to see happen.”…
“They are saying we’ve got to go back to a much safer system and that means everyone needs to shrink,” said David Ellison, a Boston-based money manager at Hennessy Advisors Inc., which oversaw $5.9 billion at year-end. “They are using Basel, the CCAR stress test, to say this is what we want you to do. They have effectively nationalized the banking system.”…
There’s nothing in Dodd-Frank or the global capital rules that tells banks to break up, according to Thomas Hoenig, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The law says they should be capable of being wound down in a crisis, which is pushing some firms to shrink, he said.
“We’re not going to break you up, but we want you to structure yourself so that your failure doesn’t bring the economy down next time,” Hoenig said. “If you can’t get to that point with your current organization structure, then you should sell assets to get to that state.”
That message is finally getting through.

Rather than take over the banks and/or force them to break up, the reforms included in Dodd/Frank have incentivized these financial institutions to downsize themselves. As I’ve written about before, that’s the kind of big organizational change that actually works.

The farther out we get from the panic of the original crisis and the passage of these reforms, the better former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner looks. His goals were to create a “soft landing,” protect American taxpayers, and do what was necessary to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again. It may be taking a while to play out, but that’s exactly what is happening.

March 01, 2015 7:40 AM Daylight Poem

Sometimes, you need the ocean light,
and colors you’ve never seen before
painted through an evening sky.

Sometimes you need your God
to be a simple invitation
not a telling word of wisdom.

Sometimes you need only the first shyness
that comes from being shown things
far beyond your understanding,

so that you can fly and become free
by being still and by being still here.

- From “SECOND SIGHT” by David Whyte

February 28, 2015 5:20 PM Odds & Ends

I’m going to do something a little different today. That’s because if you watched any of the speakers at CPAC, you might be tempted to think that ISIS is marching across the Middle East and is about to reach our shores. Of course that’s not true. So I’m going to highlight some things that have been written recently and suggest that you read them to get a more accurate view of what’s going on.

Zack Beauchamp writes: ISIS is Losing.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the Middle East today, you need to appreciate one fundamental fact: ISIS is losing its war for the Middle East.

This may seem hard to believe: in Iraq and Syria, the group still holds a stretch of territory larger than the United Kingdom, manned by a steady stream of foreign fighters. Fighters pledging themselves to ISIS recently executed 21 Christians in Libya.
It’s certainly true that ISIS remains a terrible and urgent threat to the Middle East. The group is not on the verge of defeat, nor is its total destruction guaranteed. But, after months of ISIS expansion and victories, the group is now being beaten back. It is losing territory in the places that matter. Coalition airstrikes have hamstrung its ability to wage offensive war, and it has no friends to turn to for help. Its governance model is unsustainable and risks collapse in the long run.
Unless ISIS starts adapting, there’s a very good chance its so-called caliphate is going to fall apart.

From The Australian, we learn that the Islamic State is being hit by desertions and disgust at their brutality.

Islamic State is facing increasing public disobedience and a ­rising numbers of defections, ­according to sources in two cities in Iraq and Syria.

They offered similar claims of morale falling and of defections among Islamic State fighters in Mosul and Raqqa, and told of ­displays of disaffection and resistance, and of rising incidences of corruption among officials.

Miriam Karolyn writes: Islamic State Under Pressure as Kurds Seize Syrian Town.

Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing an important town on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said.

Islamic State has been forced into retreat across parts of the strategic region, a land bridge between territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, even as its fighters have mounted new raids this week on Assyrian Christian villages, abducting more than 200 people.
The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country’s civil war.

John Simpson reports that - at least in Baghdad - ISIS is Losing.

After 12 years in which the worst of any range of possibilities usually came about, it does feel as though Iraq could at long last be starting to turn the corner. That is certainly what people here in Baghdad, probably the most pessimistic city on earth, are now allowing themselves to hope. If it turns out to be true, they will deserve it more than just about any other group of people on earth.

Both the Pentagon and the Iraqi government have been saying that the coalition will mount an assault to re-take the city of Mosul from ISIS this spring. But Nancy Youssef reports that those plans have changed.

The U.S. military’s goal to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been pushed back several months at least, defense officials told The Daily Beast. That’s a major shift for the Pentagon, which recently announced that the first major ground offensive in the war against ISIS could come in the next few weeks.

Defense officials once hoped that Iraqi troops could move into Mosul by the Spring and reclaim the city from ISIS. Now, those officials say, Fall is more realistic. And even that date was tenuous.
“It is an Iraqi decision but we don’t want to do anything until they are ready and can win decisively,” a military official explained to the Daily Beast. “They cannot now.”

And now, to end the day’s blogging, let’s switch gears. A week ago today the world of jazz lost one of it’s great performers - Clark Terry. In addition to being a jazz trumpet master, Terry devoted much of his life to mentoring other musicians. One of his earliest mentees, Quincy Jones, made a documentary film about Terry’s relationship with his last mentee, Justin Kauflin, titled Keep On Keepin’ On. As the extra-terrestrial mentor Yoda would say: Watch this film you should.

February 28, 2015 3:39 PM Liberia Says “Thank You”

Being a consumer of American media can sometimes be compared to reading a gripping mystery/adventure novel and just when you get to the height of the suspense, someone takes the book away and hands you a new one to start reading. No one ever writes the last chapter.

It’s like we get to the part where the villain has his hostage tied to the tracks and the train is approaching. Then we cut away to the next story. That is why too many Americans think the world is going to hell in a hand basket (see CPAC).

Now…I know that very few real life stories come to a clear THE END. But occasionally we get an approximation of something like that. Today I’d like to write about one of those.

This week Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf expressed her country’s gratitude for the role the United States played in combating Ebola.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf paid emotional tribute to the American people on Thursday as the United States formally wound up its successful five-month mission to combat the west African nation’s Ebola outbreak.

With Liberia now in recovery from the worst outbreak of the deadly virus in history, the visiting Sirleaf thanked the United States for coming to the region’s aid in its hour of need.
“America responded, you did not run from Liberia,” Sirleaf told US lawmakers in Washington, expressing the “profound gratitude” of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The American public has moved on from the hysteria created by the Ebola epidemic only a few months ago. So this kind of news won’t get much attention. But if anyone is looking for a reason to be proud of our country and this President, there you have it!

February 28, 2015 2:10 PM One Young Man’s Story of Being an ISIS Recruit

Right wingers are determined to make State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf their punching bag for saying that we can’t kill our way out of the threat of terrorism.

As she attempted to clarify in that interview, what she was addressing was how we reach the young (mostly) men who are attracted to the cause of ISIS.

To put a face on what she’s talking about, John Simpson wrote about his experience of participating in the interrogation of a 17 year old ISIS recruit who was captured before he completed a suicide bomb mission at a Shia mosque in Baghdad.

His name was Zakariya al-Rawi, and his story was sad and squalid. He had run away from home after rowing with his parents and gone to a nearby town that was occupied by Islamic State. An IS loudspeaker van drove up and down the streets constantly, calling on people to volunteer to serve Islam. That filled Zakariya with a new sense of purpose. He joined up, together with friends.

The recruiters gave him some basic military training but it is clear what they wanted: suicide fodder. They must have detected his weakness of character, his uncertainties, his innocence, and they started to work on him, telling him that Shia Muslims were heretics who had to be extirpated, the enemies of Sunni Muslims like Zakariya and his friends. He believed them…
How old were the others who decided to volunteer?
“Most of them were like me, or younger.”
How young?
“Fourteen, 15, 16.”
I asked him what his father and mother would have thought about what he had become. Tears came to his eyes: he suddenly stopped being a terrorist. Now, he was just a kid who had upset his parents and didn’t know how to get home.
His IS minders took him to Baghdad, put him up at a safe house, and taught him how to use an explosive vest. He had to keep his thumb on the trigger of the bomb. Directly he raised it, the bomb would go off. And at that instant, they said, without needing to go through the process of having his life and actions judged, he would find himself in paradise. It might not have been particularly good theology, but it worked.

That’s just one young man’s story. We know from the videos ISIS has made that he is not representative of some (most?) members of that group.

But when we talk about young 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds being recruited to be fodder in these death games, it’s important to keep this kind of story in mind because “in the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment, some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world.” There is the potential for a steady stream of young recruits just like Zakariya al-Rawi. This is exactly who Ms. Harf was talking about.

February 28, 2015 12:40 PM Department of Education Fires Repo Man Contractors for College Loans

Back in 2012, Stephen Burd broke a story in the Washington Monthly about the predatory “repo man” tactics used by contractors working for the Department of Education to collect payments on college loans.

Gregory McNeil, 49, is living out his days at a veterans home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His room is so cramped he can barely fit his twin bed, dresser, and the computer desk he had to sneak in because it was against regulations. His only income comes from the Social Security disability payments he began receiving last year after undergoing quadruple-bypass heart surgery. These payments go directly to the veterans home, which then gives him $100 a month for his expenses. McNeil fears that if he leaves the home, the government will seize a portion of his Social Security to pay off the federal student loan he defaulted on two decades ago. “This veterans home may become my financial prison,” he says. “And this is no way to live.”

McNeil’s fears are well grounded. For years, private collection companies acting under contract with the U.S. Department of Education have hounded him. The government garnisheed his wages for a time, and threatened to sue him. He says he always wanted to repay, but has never had the income he would need. Meanwhile, interest continues to accrue on his debt, and has already tripled the amount he owes.

Yeah, the idea of going after a veteran’s Social Security payments after he just underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery is NOT a good look for the Department of Education. But that’s what their contractors were doing.

In his story, Burd specifically singled out one company.

One of the most aggressive loan-collection firms is Pioneer Credit Recovery, a subsidiary of student loan giant Sallie Mae. Consumer Web sites are full of complaints about the company’s practices. Meanwhile, former Pioneer collectors recently told Bloomberg Businessweek that the company has a “boiler room” culture, where low-paid workers are richly rewarded for squeezing the most money they possibly can out of defaulted borrowers. Those who miss their targets are under constant threat of losing their jobs. “When you’re making eight bucks an hour, it’s all about the bonuses,” said a former Pioneer employee who worked at the collection agency from 2004 to 2007.

Yesterday, the Department of Education finally cut ties with these contractors.

The U.S. Department of Education, under fire for its lackluster oversight of student loan contractors, said Friday it will terminate its relationship with five debt collectors after accusing them of misleading distressed borrowers at “unacceptably high rates.”

The surprise announcement follows years of complaints about allegedly illegal debt-collection practices by Education Department contractors, the department’s seeming lack of interest in ensuring that borrowers are treated fairly, and the relative opacity of the entire operation.
The most prominent of the debt collectors, Pioneer Credit Recovery, is owned by Navient Corp., the student loan giant formerly known as Sallie Mae. Pioneer, under investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, generated $127 million from the contract over the past two years, according to its annual report to investors on Friday. It has worked for the Education Department since 1997.

That’s a great first step. But you’ll want to read Stephen Burd’s whole article to hear about a more comprehensive approach that would solve this problem for the 7 million Americans who are currently affected.

One final note, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created specifically to tackle these kinds of issues. Note their involvement in taking complaints, filing reports and investigating abusers. This is exactly why it is such an important component of the Dodd/Frank reforms.

February 28, 2015 10:36 AM The Scott Walker Antidote: Minnesota

With the Iowa caucus still 11 months away, the media has become obsessed with the candidacy of Scott Walker. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but in the midst of all that, a few good reporters are taking a look at flyover country and finding out that Wisconsin’s next door neighbor provides a great antidote to his policy claims.

Up here in the tundra, that comparison started a while ago. In 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article reminding us that when it comes to population, commerce and politics, Minnesota and Wisconsin have an awful lot in common. But something drastically changed after the 2010 election.

Wisconsin has been cutting taxes, curbing unions, expanding private school vouchers and rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Minnesota has been raising taxes, empowering unions, legalizing same-sex marriage and embracing Obamacare.
Wisconsin is getting its most conservative governance in decades. Minnesota is getting its most liberal governance in decades.
In their underlying political makeup, they may be as similar as any two states in America.
But one is being governed like South Carolina, the other like Vermont.

In a true testament to the idea that “every vote matters,” here is a summary of what spurred the different path each state would take:

In Wisconsin, Republicans captured the governor’s office (Scott Walker) and both chambers of the Legislature in the GOP wave of 2010. Thanks to that unified control, Republicans were able to pass a hugely favorable redistricting plan that helped ensure the party’s legislative majorities in 2012 in an otherwise poor election for the GOP.

In Minnesota, Republicans also took over both chambers of the Legislature in the 2010 conservative wave. But the party fell four-tenths of a percentage point short of winning a three-way race for governor. Democrat Mark Dayton’s razor-thin victory with less than 44% of the vote resulted in divided government, which resulted in a fairly neutral, court-approved redistricting plan. And that helped make it possible for Minnesota Democrats to retake the Legislature in the more favorable election climate of 2012.

I mentioned a while ago that Larry Jacobs had suggested in 2013 that this divergence of such similar states could provide a laboratory for measuring the outcomes of liberal and conservative policies. Recently Patrick Caldwell and Carl Gibson seemed to have noticed as well.

Caldwell focused on the fact that - unlike Scott Walker - Gov. Mark Dayton is an “unnatural” politician.

For a man who has won a competitive US Senate race and secured his second term as governor in November, Mark Dayton is a terrible retail politician. “He’s very shy and he’s an introvert,” Ken Martin, the chair of the state party and a friend of Dayton’s, told me unprompted earlier this month. “He’s not a typical, backslapping politician,” Martin continued. “He’s not very articulate; he’s kind of jerky,” Tom Bakk, the Democratic Senate majority leader, says of his ally’s style. When Dayton first ran for his current job, in 2010, The New Republic dubbed him “Eeyore for Governor.”

Nevertheless, Dayton managed to get the job done.

Think of Dayton as Scott Walker’s mirror image. With the help of GOP-controlled legislatures, Walker and other Republican governors, such as Kansas’ Sam Brownback, have passed wish lists of conservative policies and touted their states as laboratories that demonstrate the benefits of conservative governance. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has parlayed that hype into a potential 2016 presidential run. And across the border in Minnesota, Dayton seized a brief moment of unified Democratic control to create the liberal alternative to Walker’s Wisconsin—a blue-state laboratory for demonstrating the potential of liberal policies. Dayton didn’t “set out” with the objective of one-upping Walker in mind, he told me after the Eagan event. But “the contrast,” he notes, is obvious.

Over the past several years, Minnesota has become a testing ground for a litany of policies Democrats hope to enact nationally: legalizing same-sex marriage, making it easier to vote, boosting primary education spending, instituting all-day kindergarten, expanding unionization, freezing college tuition, increasing the minimum wage, and passing new laws requiring equal pay for women. To pay for it all, Dayton pushed a sharp increase on taxes for the top 2 percent—one of the largest hikes in state history. Republicans went berserk, warning that businesses would flee the state and take jobs with them.
The disaster Dayton’s GOP rivals predicted never happened. Two years after the tax hike, Minnesota’s economy is booming. The state added 172,000 jobs during Dayton’s first four years in office. Its 3.6 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country (Wisconsin’s is 5.2 percent), and the Twin Cities have the lowest unemployment rate of any major metropolitan area. Under Dayton, Minnesota has consistently been in the top tier of states for GDP growth. Median incomes are $8,000 higher than the national average. In 2014, Minnesota led the nation in economic confidence, according to Gallup.

I would simply add that recently Gov. Walker announced that Wisconsin will have to skip a $108 million debt payment due to his budget shortfall, while yesterday Minnesota’s state budget office announced a projected $1.9 billion surplus (up $832 million since their last projection in November).

Gibson provides some of the same data and then tells us how this happened in Minnesota.

Gov. Dayton didn’t accomplish all of these reforms by shrewdly manipulating people — this article describes Dayton’s astonishing lack of charisma and articulateness. He isn’t a class warrior driven by a desire to get back at the 1 percent — Dayton is a billionaire heir to the Target fortune. It wasn’t just a majority in the legislature that forced him to do it — Dayton had to work with a Republican-controlled legislature for his first two years in office. And unlike his Republican neighbor to the east, Gov. Dayton didn’t assert his will over an unwilling populace by creating obstacles between the people and the vote — Dayton actually created an online voter registration system, making it easier than ever for people to register to vote.

The reason Gov. Dayton was able to radically transform Minnesota’s economy into one of the best in the nation is simple arithmetic. Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more will turn a deficit into a surplus. Raising the minimum wage will increase the median income. And in a state where education is a budget priority and economic growth is one of the highest in the nation, it only makes sense that more businesses would stay.
It’s official — trickle-down economics is bunk. Minnesota has proven it once and for all. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong.

So my question for all the media and Republicans who are fawning over Scott Walker is…if he’s all that, why is Mark Dayton’s Minnesota beating him on every conceivable measure?

Of course the answer is that Dayton has clearly proved that - when all the hype is over - Democratic policies work.

February 28, 2015 8:40 AM A House Divided

The plan was to force President Obama to either sign a bill repealing his executive actions on immigration or veto it and shut down the Department of Homeland Security. But things didn’t work out that way.

Senator McConnell couldn’t get the 6/7 Democratic votes he needed to pass a bill that paired funding for DHS to repealing the President’s immigration actions and Speaker Boehner was unwilling to pass a stand-alone funding bill with primarily Democratic votes. So we got a one week reprieve before we do this all over again.

The good news is that we found out that neither Republican leader is willing to follow through with their threats to blow up hostages in order to force Democrats to give them what they want. So at some point, they’ll pass a bill that funds DHS.

Here’s the bad news:

After the Republicans gained control of the Senate and increased their margins in the House in the November elections, both Mr. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, promised to reverse Congress’s pattern of hurtling from crisis to crisis, even over matters like appropriations that were once relatively routine.

But in their first big test, the Republican leaders often seemed to be working from different playbooks, at times verging on hostility, with each saying it was time for the other chamber to act.
The funding stalemate bodes poorly for any larger policy accomplishments this year, leaving lawmakers pessimistic that the 114th Congress will be able to work in a bipartisan fashion on more complicated issues.
The Office of Management and Budget has said that a vote to increase the nation’s debt limit will be necessary by mid- to late summer, and lawmakers were also hoping to take up trade policy, as well as at least a modest overhaul of the nation’s tax code — undertakings that now look increasingly imperiled.

When you’ve spent the last six years convincing your base that your opponent is a tyrant who is out to destroy the country and that his party’s agenda is the tool by which he will do that, its pretty hard to actually govern in a system that is designed to require compromise.

I wouldn’t say that any of that is a big surprise to those of us who have been paying attention. But what is surprising - and will be worth paying attention to over the next few months - is the apparent hostility between McConnell and Boehner. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. But it does suggest that there is more than one fault line in this divided house.

February 28, 2015 7:52 AM Daylight Video

I can’t reveal my sources, but I have it on pretty good authority that this is the message that Majority Leader McConnell sent Speaker Boehner yesterday.

February 27, 2015 5:57 PM Day’s End and Night Watch

We’ll have a wrap-up/greatest hits post about CPAC on Monday. Wouldn’t want to deny readers my reaction to Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, would I?

Here are some remains of the day:

* Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot to death in Moscow. That’s all we know at present.

* WaPo reports that ME, OH, PA, SC, SD, UT all considering state exchanges to avoid possible consequences of King v. Burwell.

* After delays due to Senate votes, Rand Paul gets his usual rapturous response at CPAC.

* Brownstein says nobody since Bush 2000 has enjoyed so broad-based a lead as Scott Walker does among 16ers today.

* At Ten Miles Square, in a web exclusive, Donald Kettl discusses a new GAO report on the VA placing the agency on its list of “high risks” for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

And in non-political news:

* Earl Lloyd, first black player in NBA, dies at 86.

That’s it for Friday. Nancy LeTourneau will be in for Weekend Blogging tomorrow. As it’s another Friday in Lent, we’ll close with the hymn my own church’s choir will perform on Sunday, a chorale from Bach’s cantata, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee).”


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