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“The Senator Needs A New Hobby”: McCain Shows How Not To Argue About Wasteful Spending

It seems about once a year or so, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) publishes a report on “wasteful” federal spending that he’s eager to cut. The document invariably comes with a great deal of exasperation from the senator, who simply can’t understand why more lawmakers fail to take his findings seriously.

Last week, the Arizona Republican was at it again, writing a piece for Fox News, heralding his work as “a wake-up call for Congress about out-of-control spending.” Of particular interest, he noted “a $50,000 grant to investigate whether African elephants’ unique and highly acute sense of smell could be used to sniff-out bombs.”

The 19-page report (pdf) itself spends a fair amount of time on the bomb-sniffing elephants and the $50,000 grant from three years ago.

“While finding new ways to enhance our bomb detection methods is important, it is unlikely that African elephants could feasibly be used on the battlefield given their large size and sensitive status as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.

“At a time when the defense budget faces serious cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, it is critical that Congress ensures our military branches spend their limited funds on worthwhile programs that effectively and efficiently enhance our military readiness.”

So, does McCain have a point? Not really.

Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog flagged this Associated Press piece from two months ago, which the senator’s report neglected to mention.

New research conducted in South Africa and involving the US military shows they excel at identifying explosives by smell, stirring speculation about whether their extraordinary ability can save lives.

“They work it out very, very quickly,” said Sean Hensman, co-owner of a game reserve where three elephants passed the smell tests by sniffing at buckets and getting a treat of marula, a tasty fruit, when they showed that they recognized samples of TNT, a common explosive, by raising a front leg.

Another plus: Elephants remember their training longer than dogs, said Stephen Lee, head scientist at the US Army Research Office, a major funder of the research.

Obviously, given elephants’ size, it’s unrealistic to think the animals would be brought to a minefield, but the AP piece noted that unmanned drones could “collect scent samples from mined areas,” and a trained elephant “would then smell them and alert handlers to any sign of explosives.”

A spokesperson for the Army research command added that the better elephants performed, the more researchers could “determine how they do it so that understanding could be applied to the design of better electronic sensors.”

Oh. So, for $50,000 – less than a rounding error in the overall military budget – we’re talking about research that could very well save many American lives on a battlefield.

This was one of the single best examples John McCain and his office could find of “wasteful” government spending.

As we’ve discussed before, part of the underlying problem here is that the Republican senator seems to think publicly funded research involving animals is, practically by definition, hilarious.

In 2009, for example, McCain used Twitter to highlight what he considered “the top 10 pork barrel projects” in the Recovery Act. In one classic example, McCain blasted “$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi,” asking, “How does one manage a beaver?”

While I’m sure the senator was delighted with his wit, in reality, $650,000 in stimulus funds hired workers to disrupt beaver dams, which in turn prevented significant flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways, and other infrastructure in the area (which would have ended up costing far more than $650,000). The Arizonan neglected to do his homework, and ended up blasting a worthwhile project for no reason.

In 2012, he did it again with the Farm Bill. As Alex Pareene explained at the time, McCain isn’t “developing any sort of larger objection to the bill’s priorities or major components,” rather, “McCain just decided to single out the things in the bill that sound the silliest.”

[On Twitter], McCain counted down the 10 “worst projects” funded by the Farm Bill, except by almost any standard they were not at all the worst things funded by the farm bill.

Like No. 6, starting a program to eradicate feral pigs, which McCain clearly included because it involves pigs, allowing him to make a “pork” joke. Except feral pigs are actually a major (and expensive) threat to the environment and property and businesses. And, oh my, $700 million to study moth pheromones! What a waste of money! Except it’s funding the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s competitive grants program, and if you don’t think “grants for scientific research on agriculture” is something the government should be doing, you should make that argument instead of delivering scripted zingers about welfare moths on the floor of the Senate in a pathetic bid at getting some ink for your brave stand against wasteful spending.

What McCain may not realize is that he’s actually helping prove his opponents’ point. If these spending bills were so wasteful, he’d be able to come up with actual examples to bolster his argument, and the fact that he can’t suggests (a) these bills aren’t wasteful at all and (b) the senator needs a new hobby.

For the record, I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s some unnecessary spending in the federal budget, and responsible policymakers should make every effort to prevent waste. But the more McCain thinks he’s good at this, the more he proves otherwise.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 11, 2015

May 12, 2015 Posted by | Federal Budget, John McCain, Scientific Research | , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Pitting Retirees Against The Disabled”: GOP Manufacturing A Social Security Crisis To Threaten Benefits For Millions Of Disabled Americans

When conservatives who like to whine about “welfare” are forced to be more specific, some go after the traditional if significantly less generous TANF program of cash assistance, or Medicaid, or those receiving subsidies under Obamacare. But more often these days, they attack either Disability Insurance or SNAP, programs that have experienced large increases in eligibility because of the economy or demographic trends or both.

Congressional Republicans failed last year to force the inclusion of a major reduction in SNAP eligibility in the 2014 Farm Bill. But now they appear to be going after DI, through the half-clever mechanism of pitting beneficiaries against the larger universe of Social Security retirement recipients. Here’s a quick description of the ploy from TPM’s Dylan Scott:

The incoming GOP majority approved late Tuesday a new rule that experts say could provoke an unprecedented crisis that conservatives could use as leverage in upcoming debates over entitlement reform.

The largely overlooked change puts a new restriction on the routine transfer of tax revenues between the traditional Social Security retirement trust fund and the Social Security disability program. The transfers, known as reallocation, had historically been routine; the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said Tuesday that they had been made 11 times. The CBPP added that the disability insurance program “isn’t broken,” but the program has been strained by demographic trends that the reallocations are intended to address.

The House GOP’s rule change would still allow for a reallocation from the retirement fund to shore up the disability fund — but only if an accompanying proposal “improves the overall financial health of the combined Social Security Trust Funds,” per the rule, expected to be passed on Tuesday. While that language is vague, experts say it would likely mean any reallocation would have to be balanced by new revenues or benefit cuts.

I have zero doubt Republicans will describe this rules change, now that it’s getting attention, as a measure to “protect Social Security,” even though DI is part of the same system, and the ploy may actually be aimed at producing “entitlement reforms” affecting retiree benefits as well as disability eligibility. But Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren, do seem to be all over this with unusual alacrity:

“It’s ridiculous – but not surprising – that on the very first day of the new Congress, Republicans are manufacturing a Social Security crisis to threaten benefits for millions of disabled Americans – including 233,260 in Massachusetts alone,” Warren said on Facebook. “We can’t turn our backs on the promises we’ve made to our families, friends, and neighbors who need our help the most. House Republicans should stop playing political games to put America’s most vulnerable at risk.”

So we’ll probably see leading Republicans take a low profile on the issue for a while, as their friends in the conservative chattering classes probably ratchet up the talk about the freeloading bums on DI.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 7, 2015

January 9, 2015 Posted by | Disability Insurance, Republicans, Social Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Upside-Down Tea Party Dogma In Arkansas”: Contrary To Tea Party Fantasies, It Wasn’t Private Entrepreneurs Who Paved The Roads

When we moved to our Arkansas cattle farm, a friend lent us a book titled A Straw in the Sun. Published in 1945, Charlie Mae Simon’s beautifully written memoir of homesteading here in Perry County, Arkansas during the 1930s was long out of print—maybe because the hardscrabble life it depicts is too recent for nostalgia.

Like much of the rural South before World War II, Perry County was essentially the Third World. So was Yell County, immediately to the west, home of U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton. Except for a lot of wasteful government spending he affects to deplore, it would still be.

Cotton’s campaign against Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor reflects everything upside-down about Tea Party dogma and the tycoons who fund it—a local story with national implications.

Originally featured as New Yorker essays, Simon’s book wasn’t intended as social protest. Even so, many forget that millions of Americans lived as subsistence-level peasant farmers within living memory.

Simon and her neighbors grew their own food and slaughtered their own hogs; they cut firewood, dug wells, built outhouses, made candles and fermented corn liquor. Electricity and telephones weren’t available; cash commerce all but non-existent. To file her essays, Simon walked hours to the general store or hitched rides on mule-drawn wagons along dirt roads that became impassible in wet weather. The simple life proved terribly complicated.

During the same period, writes historian S. Charles Bolton in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, roughly 1/3 of black and 1/5 of rural white Arkansans emigrated to places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Others found work in town. Today, large parts of Perry and Yell counties are in the Ouachita National Forest. They had more residents then than now.

But here’s the thing: Contrary to Tea Party fantasies, it wasn’t plucky private entrepreneurs that paved the roads, strung the wire, saved grandpa from penury and made organized commerce across the rural South possible. It was federal and state investment.

Even today, such prosperity as Yell County enjoys—it’s the 64th wealthiest of Arkansas’s 75 counties—derives from timber cutting and the proximity of three scenic lakes built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not to mention, of course, agricultural price supports from the 2014 Farm Bill that Rep. Cotton voted against.

But enough history. There’s plenty of strictly contemporary reality that self-styled “conservatives” also ignore. In TV commercials, Cotton depicts himself as the dutiful son of a “cattle rancher” who taught him farmers can’t spend money they don’t have.

Cotton’s father does run a small cattle farm near Dardanelle. However, it’s also a fact that Len Cotton retired as District Supervisor of the Arkansas Health Department after a 37-year career. The senior Cotton has also served on the Arkansas Veterans Commission, the Tri-County Regional Water Board, etc.

The candidate’s mother Avis taught in public schools for 40 years. She retired in 2012 as principal of the Dardanelle middle school. Career government bureaucrats, both, bless their public-spirited hearts.

So I’m guessing Len Cotton raises cattle for the same reasons I do: because it’s an absorbing hobby with considerable tax advantages.

Meanwhile, the thing about the Farm Bill that urban liberals often don’t get, and that a poser like Tom Cotton’s being disingenuous about, is this that it’s damn near impossible to farm without risking money you don’t have.

The largest recipient of agricultural subsidies in Arkansas is Riceland Rice—a member-owned co-op representing 5,800 farmers.

Farmers who have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, and diesel fuel to pump water; also to finance tractors and combines more costly than the land. Farmers who borrow every spring in the hope of turning a profit in the fall. And who risk losing the entire crop to pests, floods, drought, tornadoes, to cheap soybeans from Brazil, etc. If there’s fraud and waste, cut it out. However, it’s in the national interest to keep agriculture strong.

But let’s head back to town, shall we? One of the fastest growing GOP strongholds in Arkansas is the college town of Conway, just across the Arkansas River. Tom Cotton’s sure to do well there.

And why does Conway prosper? Basically, government largesse. Located along Interstate 40, it’s the home of the University of Central Arkansas, a growing state school. It’s got a brand-new, federally-funded airport, two private colleges supported by state scholarships funded by the Arkansas Lottery, and an excellent non-profit hospital (Medicare, Medicaid), etc.

The city’s biggest private employers are Internet-oriented Acxiom and Hewlett Packard. (Pentagon researchers created the Internet.) Furthermore, everybody in Conway receives electricity, water, sewage, cable TV, Internet and telephone service from the Conway Corporation—a city-owned co-op begun in the 1920s, as efficient an example of municipal socialism as you’ll find this side of Stockholm, Sweden.

Dogma notwithstanding, all successful modern economies are mixed economies.

No politician who tells you differently is your friend.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, October 1, 2014

October 6, 2014 Posted by | Arkansas, Tea Party, Tom Cotton | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Not-So-Soft Racism of Tom Cotton”: A Deliberate Divisive Form Of Racial Politics

Reagan adviser Lee Atwater:

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–, n—–, n—–.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—–” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–.”

GOP representative Tom Cotton, telling a gross lie:

“(My dad) taught me early: farmers can’t spend more than they take in, and I listened,” Cotton said in the ad. “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no.”

Of course, Cotton isn’t even in the ballpark of truth here. Food stamp bills have long been attached to farm bills in a cat’s cradle knot to encourage urban and rural legislators to vote for each others’ programs. It was the GOP who dissociated them in the hope of cutting food stamps. Obama had nothing to do with it.

But it’s worse than that. It’s no secret that food stamps (now called the SNAP program) have long been racial code for Republicans, even though a large plurality of SNAP recipients are white. When a Republican politician tells his base that he favors cutting food stamps but not farm subsidies, he’s using Atwater’s dog whistle, promising to deliver the pork to rich (white) agribusiness to boost their profits, while stiffing a lot of minorities (most of whom do work at least part-time) who would actually benefit the broader economy by receiving spending money.

Republicans bristle at being called racist in their policies: they feel that Democrats use every opportunity to brand any conservative policy as racist. But that’s because they’ve grown so used to their own dog whistles that they don’t even realize that other people can hear them and take offense.

Tom Cotton isn’t just lying to rural voters about the history of the farm bill. He’s also playing a deliberately divisive form of racial politics that has no place in modern America.

 

By: David Atkins, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 20, 2014

September 21, 2014 Posted by | Politics, Racism, Tom Cotton | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sniveling Little Children”: Boehner Laments ‘Knuckleheads’ Within House GOP

Once in a while, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sounds like a man who isn’t entirely fond of his ostensible followers.

Speaker John Boehner said that he’s got a “few knuckleheads” to deal with, and that’s largely why the Republican majority in the House looks good on paper but doesn’t always pan out with votes.

“On any given day, 16 of my members decide they’re going to go this way, and all of a sudden, I have nothing,” he said, describing the reality of his “paper majority” in the House, The Hill reported. “You might notice I have a few knuckleheads in my conference.”

According to the report in the conservative Washington Times, Boehner went on say, “Dealing with Democrats is one thing. Dealing with the knuckleheads is another.”

Whether he finds one easier to deal with than the other was unclear.

These comments come just five months after the Ohio Republican publicly mocked his own members over their reluctance to work on immigration reform.

“Here’s the attitude: ‘Oh, don’t make me do this. Oh, this is too hard,” Boehner said, in a tone deriding House Republicans as if they were sniveling children. He added, “We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems, and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to.”

Remember, this was the Republican Speaker referring to Republican House members. Now Boehner is also willing to concede an unknown number of his members are “knuckleheads,” too.

The candor is certainly welcome, though the larger point is how understandable the Speaker’s dissatisfaction is.

As we were reminded in late July, when House Republicans killed Boehner’s border bill, the Speaker has surprisingly limited influence over what his members actually support.

A Democratic source on Capitol Hill recently sent around a brutal collection of bills Boehner asked his members to support, only to see his own House GOP conference reject his appeals: a grand bargain, a debt-ceiling bill in 2011, a payroll tax extension, a transportation bill, a farm bill, one fiscal-cliff bill, another fiscal-cliff bill, another farm bill, and then yesterday. I think my source might have even missed a couple, including the collapse of Boehner’s debt-ceiling bill in February 2014.

What’s more, think about how regularly Boehner is pushed around. He didn’t want to initiate a debt-ceiling crisis, but his members didn’t give him much of a choice. The Speaker didn’t want to hold several dozen ACA repeal votes, but his members called the shots on this, too.

Four years after taking hold of the Speaker’s gavel, Boehner has no legislative accomplishments and has developed a reputation as the weakest Speaker in modern times.

The surprise isn’t that Boehner calls his members “knuckleheads”; the surprise is that he doesn’t use stronger language in public.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 17, 2014

September 18, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, House Republicans, John Boehner | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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