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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.11.14

12/11/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* What's going to happen in the House tonight? As of this minute, we're still not sure, but in an interesting twist, the White House is trying to help House Republican leaders drag the bill across the finish line.
* More on this on tonight's show: "CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday acknowledged the nation's top intelligence agency was in 'uncharted territory' and 'unprepared' to carry out a detention and interrogation program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks."
* Walkout: "African-American Congressional staffers conducted a planned walkout and protest at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to express solidarity with critics of the grand jury decisions in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, respectively."
* Economy: "The United States economy is firing on all cylinders as the year comes to a close. That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from a blockbuster report on November retail sales released on Thursday, particularly when coupled with other recent readings on jobs, industrial activity and more. Total retail sales rose 0.7 percent in November, as holiday shopping began."
* Hong Kong: "Dozens of prominent members of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement gave themselves up for arrest in a show of defiance on Thursday after the police swept through a protest camp, tearing down tents, posters and speakers' platforms that had given voice to anger over the government's restrictive election plans."
* Success: "Obamacare customers shook off their Thanksgiving food comas last week and began signing up at a much quicker pace on, which has now sold 1.38 million insurance plans."
* This looked iffy for a while: "The Senate on Thursday advanced the $585 billion Defense bill. The procedural vote was necessary because some GOP senators objected to the inclusion of an unrelated lands package in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)."
* New Jersey: "Federal prosecutors investigating the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge last year are considering charges based on a rarely used provision of a fraud statute, under which they could argue that associates of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey used the bridge for a purpose other than its intended one, according to people close to the case."
* Naming Islamic State militants can be tricky: "Secretary of State John Kerry is a distinguished diplomat with impeccable manners -- but that doesn't mean he's above lobbing a well-placed insult when it comes to enemies of the United States. Kerry made clear earlier this week that he is committed to referring to the Islamic State as 'Daesh,' a name that the group considers so degrading that it has threatened to kill anyone under Islamic State rule who uses it."
* This is not OK: "Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education show that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity."
Boehner arrives for a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

House GOP stumbling towards shutdown deadline

12/11/14 04:12PM

Eight hours ago, I had a recommendation: as the day on Capitol Hill progresses, and the various political factions lobby for and against the pending spending package, watch to see if House Republicans delay the vote on the so-called "CRomnibus."
Unsure whether they have the votes to pass a trillion-dollar federal spending package, House GOP leaders on Thursday afternoon delayed a final vote on the "cromnibus."
They did so with mere hours to go until the government is set to run out of funding, and just before the House was scheduled to vote.
There was a procedural vote this afternoon, which was chaotic, and served as a big hint that House Republicans did not have their ducks in a row.
If this seems like the latest in a series of similar examples, it's not your imagination. For four years, think about how many times we've seen this pattern play out:
1. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) comes up with a plan.
2. Boehner and House Republican leaders urge their members to support the plan.
3. Boehner and the GOP leadership express confidence that the plan will pass.
4. Boehner scrambles for a backup solution when his members decide they don't like the plan.
It's not over, and we're dealing with a fluid situation subject to quick changes, but if the current spending package is failing -- as seems to be the case -- the question then becomes what happens next.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has an idea.
Michele Bachmann

Bachmann connects Ten Commandments, U.S. prosperity

12/11/14 12:57PM

Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) congressional career is nearing its end, and yesterday, the right-wing Minnesotan delivered her final floor speech as a member of Congress. She used the opportunity to argue that the Ten Commandments led to U.S. prosperity. Or something.
"Because you see, Mr. Speaker, Moses is given for the full honor of the greatest lawgiver in this chamber, because he was chosen by the God that we trust to be entrusted with the basis of all law. The 'basis of all law' as was written by Blackstone, the famous English jurist, was the Ten Commandments, that were given by none other than the God we trust on Mount Sinai," the congresswoman said.
"We know those laws, those laws are the fundamental laws of mankind, and here in the United States, the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses is the very foundation of the law that has given happiness and the rise of the greatest prosperity that any nation has known before."
"Mr. Speaker, it could be no coincidence that this nation, knowing and enjoying the heights of such great happiness and such great prosperity, that it could be built upon that foundation of the Ten Commandments and of the law given by the God in whom we trust."
And while Bachmann delivered these remarks with great enthusiasm, and I hate to ruin her fun as she heads out the door, the fact remains that the Ten Commandments are not the "foundation" of American law.
I could note, for example, that there are no references to Commandments in the U.S. Constitution -- which actually is the foundation of American law -- or any of the founding American documents. I could also note that if Madison, Jefferson, or any other Founding Father saw the Commandments as the inspiration for the American legal system, they could have said so, but they didn't.
But we can skip those points and make this even more obvious: most of the Ten Commandments aren't illegal in the United States. We have no laws mandating Sabbaths; there are no laws against graven images or false gods; there are no legal prohibitions against coveting; and there are no legal requirements about honoring our parents.
If the Commandments are supposed to be the foundation for our laws, it would appear our lawmakers lost their copy of the Commandments when creating our legal system.
A Noah's Ark exhibit at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. An extensive portion of the museum explains Noah's Ark and how the great flood wiped out the majority of dinosaurs and shaped the land today.

Kentucky's Ark project loses state support

12/11/14 12:11PM

A creationist group called Answers in Genesis came up with a creative idea a few years ago: it would create a theme park called Ark Encounter, featuring a 510-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark at their Kentucky location.
As regular readers may recall, the creationists sought and received taxpayer support for the project, and state officials, in the name of boosting tourism, approved $18 million in tax subsidies to bolster Ark Encounter's finances.
The public backing didn't sit well with civil libertarians, but as is turns out, the issue has worked itself out -- the estimable Joe Sonka reported yesterday that the deal has fallen apart.
Kentucky's Tourism Arts & Heritage Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart informed representatives of the proposed Ark Encounter tourist attraction today that their project will not be eligible for up to $18 million in tax incentives from the state, due to their refusal to pledge not to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
And this is the sticking point that derailed the tax incentives. The folks behind the Ark Encounter theme park wanted to receive financial support from the public, while also maintaining the ability to discriminate against the same taxpayers supporting the project. The creationists, in other words, wanted Kentucky's money, but not Kentucky's strings.
Indeed, as Sonka's report added, "On Monday, Ark Encounter's attorney sent a letter to [state tourism officials] flatly rejecting their demand to pledge in writing to not discriminate in hiring based on religion, saying they had every legal right to do so and still be eligible for state tax incentives." (All Ark Encounter employees are required to sign a “statement of faith,” in which workers agree, among other things, that the planet is only 6,000 years old.)
That didn't go over well. Indeed, Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who'd offered his support for the project in 2010, said in a statement, "We expect any entity that accepts state incentives not to discriminate on any basis in hiring."
The project will reportedly continue anyway, though it will now rely solely on private funding, which probably should have been the case from the outset.
David Berri, right, and his assistant Adolfo Mendez install new valves and electronic controls to a pair of gas pumps at the Shell station Berri owns in Santa Ana, Calif., Saturday, March 28, 2009.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

It's like a big 'middle class tax cut'

12/11/14 11:27AM

When I wrote about gas prices early last week, the average price for a gallon of gas in the United States was $2.77. As of this morning, it's $2.62, and plenty of industry analysts believe the price isn't done sliding yet.
It's against this backdrop that Goldman Sachs said something interesting yesterday.
Tumbling gas prices will translate to a "consumer windfall" of up to $125 billion, expanding economic growth, according to new analysis from Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research. [...]
The drop for gas prices can be considered a "middle class tax cut," as these households devote a greater share of their total spending to gasoline than other families, according to Goldman. Still, American families across the income spectrum should see fatter wallets.
"Households at all income levels devote a sizable share of their budget to gasoline each year," Goldman Sachs analysts wrote.
Even in an economy as big as ours, $125 billion is a serious chunk of change. Of course, this is arguably superior to many tax-cut proposals, since the benefits will be felt more broadly and with greater speed (and it won't add to the deficit).
Meanwhile, the Associated Press this morning notes another consumer benefit: slightly more affordable airline prices.
Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks during a news conference about New York's first case of Ebola, in New York on Oct. 24, 2014. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Christie doesn't want to talk about torture, either

12/11/14 10:54AM

When Chris Christie was a U.S. Attorney in 2002, he had no qualms "emphatically" denouncing torture. "I cannot believe, given the history of this country, that no matter what the threat to our country that we would forsake our protection of liberties to the extent that we would advocate torture as a way of getting evidence," he said at the time.
The future governor added, "You have to be coolheaded in times of crisis to be able to not go too far."
Twelve years later, with a new Senate Intelligence Committee report sparking serious discussions around the world, the no-nonsense, straight-talking New Jersey Republican is reluctant to endorse the same principles.
Asked for his reaction by The New York Times, Mr. Christie said, "All I've seen, unfortunately, at this point, is some of the reporting from your newspaper, so I don't think it would be responsible to comment based only on that." [...]
Asked whether he was comfortable with the interrogation techniques he had read about so far, Mr. Christie declined to say. "I'm not going to comment based just on what I've read so far," he said. "It would be irresponsible."
Behold, the bold, unflinching leadership of Christopher J. Christie.
Look, I can appreciate the value of pausing to read a report before assessing it, even if Dick Cheney disagrees. If Christie wants to withhold comment about specific, detailed revelations, fine.
But in 2002, Christie was willing to condemn torture in no uncertain terms. Why, 12 years later, when many in his party are eagerly celebrating torture, is the governor suddenly so shy on the subject?
And more to the point, why does this keep happening?
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at an event Aug. 9, 2013, in Chicago, Ill. (Photo by M. Spencer Green/AP)

Jeb Bush's 'Mitt Romney problem'

12/11/14 10:16AM

A former Republican governor leaves office and enters the private-equity business. He then considers a presidential campaign, drawing criticism from his party's skeptical far-right base.
Mitt Romney? Yes, though as Joshua Green reports today, the same description applies to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who's reportedly weighing a national campaign in 2016.
Documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Nov. 27 list Bush as chairman and manager of a new offshore private equity fund, BH Global Aviation, which raised $61 million in September, largely from foreign investors. In November the fund incorporated in the United Kingdom and Wales a -- structure, several independent finance lawyers say, that operates like a tax haven by allowing overseas investors to avoid U.S. taxes and regulations.
BH Global Aviation is one of at least three such funds Bush has launched in less than two years through his Coral Gables, Fla., company, Britton Hill Holdings. He's also chairman of a $26 million fund, BH Logistics, established in April with backing from a Chinese conglomerate, and a $40 million fund involved in shale oil exploration, according to documents filed in June and first ­reported on by Bloomberg News.
The article added that the public won't know who Jeb Bush's foreign investors are because their identities are hidden behind an LLC incorporated in Delaware.
It's worth emphasizing that Bush, like Romney, hasn't been accused of financial wrongdoing. There's nothing illegal or untoward about someone creating several private-equity funds and accepting millions of dollars in investments from foreigners.
But I think it's safe to say this isn't the ideal path for a prospective presidential candidate -- as the most recent GOP candidate can attest.
Rick Perry delivers the keynote address at a Heritage Foundation event, August 21, 2014.

Rick Perry: 'Running for the presidency's not an IQ test'

12/11/14 09:23AM

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is wrapping up his 14-year tenure as his state's chief executive -- the longest such tenure in Lone Star State history -- and as he gets ready to launch a second national campaign, the governor is talking more to the national media. The goal, in all likelihood, is to help reintroduce Perry in the wake of his failed 2012 presidential bid.
It's off to a curious start.
The recently indicted Texas Republican talked with the Washington Post earlier this week, for example, "for a wide-ranging 90-minute interview." It was a reminder that Perry hasn't quite shaken off some of his bad habits.
Last week, Perry studied income inequality and economic mobility with experts Scott Winship, Erin Currier and Aparna Mathur. In the Post interview, he was asked about the growing gap between rich and poor in Texas, which has had strong job growth over the past decade but also has lagged in services for the underprivileged.
"Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion," he said.
I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I can find no Scriptural references to the notion that that the poor "are always going to be with us." [Update: see below]
Perry acknowledged that the richest Texans have experienced the greatest amount of earnings growth, but dismissed the notion that income inequality is a problem in the state, saying, "We don't grapple with that here."
I suppose that's true -- in order to "grapple with" a problem, policymakers have to at least try to address it -- though the fact remains that income inequality has gotten much worse in Texas in recent years, and a 2012 analysis of income trends published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Texas was the nation's seventh-worst state when it comes to the gap between rich and poor.
The governor's new interview with msnbc's Kasie Hunt was arguably even more informative about Perry's progress as a national candidate.

Jobless claims show steady improvement

12/11/14 08:36AM

After a couple of bumpy reports lately, the new data from the Labor Department shows initial unemployment claims headed in the right direction.
The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits inched down by 3,000 to 294,000 in the week that ended Dec. 6, hitting the lowest level in three weeks, as employers continued to lay off very few workers, according to government data released Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims to drop a hair to 296,000 from 297,000 in the prior week.
The average of new claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits over the past month inched up 250 to 299,250, the U.S. Labor Department reported. Economists look at four-week averages to identify trends.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it’s worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it’s best not to read too much significance into any one report.
In terms of metrics, when jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape, and when the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are being created rather quickly. At this point, we’ve been 300,000 in 13 of the last 14 weeks.
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

Wall Street giveaway threatens possible shutdown

12/11/14 08:00AM

Current funding for the federal government expires tonight at midnight, but at least on the surface, Republican leaders insist there's no cause for alarm. They have a plan.
This afternoon, the GOP-led House will hold a vote on a $1.1 trillion spending package, which will draw significant Republican opposition -- it doesn't even try to derail President Obama's immigration policy -- but which Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expects to pass with some Democratic support. Add some Senate support and possibly a three-day extension on current funding and ... Voila! Shutdown averted.
It's a reasonable strategy, though support from House Democrats waned yesterday as members learned more about one specific provision of the spending bill. As Rachel explained on the show last night:
"After the financial crisis, Congress passed something called Dodd-Frank -- a set of regulations designed to keep anything like what happened to the economy in 2008 from happening again.
"One of those regulations said to the banks, 'Hey, you know those incredibly risky trades you were doing that almost made the economy implode -- oh, that did make the economy implode --  the federal government is not going to ensure those trades anymore. You can do them yourself if you want, but they`re not going to be insured by the taxpayers. You have to keep those separate from the rest of your business.'
"House Republicans in the big budget bill they released last night decided to take that rule change away. They decided to tell the banks that, 'Yes, the American taxpayers would be happy to once again underwrite that kind of high risk trading. Taxpayers would love to be on the hook for that again.'"
We don't know exactly which member of Congress quietly inserted this measure into the spending bill -- wouldn't you know it, no one has been willing to take credit -- but as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted on the show last night,  "[T]his was a provision that was written by Citigroup lobbyists. I mean, they literally wrote it. They ... re-edited it and made sure it said exactly what they wanted it to say."
It has been subjected to no debate. There have been no hearings. Members have seen no evidence about the change's possible effects.
And with this in mind, members of Congress are confronted with a choice: vote for the so-called "Cromnibus" spending package, including this dangerous Wall Street giveaway, or risk a government shutdown.