April 30th, 2009

Where’s The Jobs, Jim: Chapter One

by Philip Baruth

Perhaps someone can clarify for VDB how it is that Jim Douglas has ample opportunity to fly to Washington and pitch in rearranging the Oval Office furniture, yet can’t seem ever to find the time to create any of those jobs that his name purportedly equals? Although admittedly, that’s a nice sofa.

Late Update, Friday, 9:39 am:

VPR-reader Bill writes in with a key question:

Hello VDB ,

I demand proof that Douglas actually helped move that very nice sofa. As with so many things involving Governor Douglas, he appears to be helping, he leans into it, but is he actually helping? Frankly he looks a little reluctant to me. He may just be letting the Democrat do the heavy lifting, and then grab the credit later.



April 29th, 2009


by Philip Baruth

It sounded unassuming enough: an email from Leahy’s office, wondering if I’d like to come and cover a press conference on something called the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act. The point is to hire additional FBI agents and prosecutors to pursue mortgage fraud and other white-collar crime. And after a great deal of GOP bluster, Leahy passed the bill this noon with a fairly comfortable margin: 92 to 4. So this would be a victory lap. Perfect.

And as with the credit card folks, my feelings toward bankers these days are not warm. So I headed over to the press conference at noon with an appetite for banker, only to get stopped at the Senate Appointments Desk (had appointment, did not have credentials).

Which was fine. A Leahy staffer swung by the desk and sprung me, and took me to a small but opulent little wooden elevator. When the doors closed, he lowered his voice.

“Specter is switching parties,” he said.

I was stunned. Even though the blogosphere had been populated with fairly convincing rumors over the last few weeks, Specter always struck me as the sort to tough it out with the GOP.

“When did you get that news?” I asked.

The staffer checked his Blackberry. “Seven minutes ago,” he said. Which is to say that the news was only breaking, at this moment, in the rest of the Senate and the Capitol beyond.

But reporters had the word by the time we hit the Senate Radio and Television Gallery. Believe that: the room wasn’t full, but it was pulsing, like somebody’d suddenly closed an electric circuit. Leahy’s press conference was on the agenda, but nobody was kidding anybody: Specter was Topic A.

And B.

Still, Leahy and his colleagues Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Edward “Ted” Kaufman (D-Del) did their level best to sell the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act. Leahy is at his best in this sort of prosecutorial setting. He managed to get off one of his simplest, strongest, best lines ever, speaking of those perpetrating mortgage and other sorts of high-buck fraud: “I want them to go to jail. I want them to sit in a little tiny cell for years and years and years and think of the lives they’ve ruined.”

But finally there was no denying the physics of the room, and when the Q/A began, the first question came from NBC, and it was all Specter all the time from that point forward.

Because Leahy and Specter have been so close over the years, the media seemed to sense that the Senator from Vermont had insight. And they wanted it.

And Leahy didn’t flinch.

He took the question head on, and let the GOP have it where it hurts: right in the old Jeffords. “I got the impression,” Leahy said, very much more in sorrow than in anger, “that [Specter] went through much the same that Jim Jeffords did from Vermont, and feeling that the Republican Party, a great party in this country, had left him, not the other way around.”

And when the press pressed him on whether he’d known in advance about the Specter switch, Leahy pointed out that in cases like these, the press is usually the last to know.

Which led to my own shining moment in the national spotlight. With great fanfare, I present an excerpt from the official transcript, entirely unedited:

LEAHY: “But we knew [about the Jeffords switch] in Vermont. We knew it long — apparently long before anybody down here. It was well talked about. I see Bill Baroonth (ph) here from Vermont. He knows everybody was talking about it before it happened. And it wasn’t a case — I mean, the Jeffords, the whole family, a long line of distinguished members of the Republican Party, but it was too much and he left.”

That’s right, baby: Bill Baroonth was in the house. How proud, how justifiably proud, my mother, Mrs. Baroonth, will be tonight.

The media wanted more, but Leahy’s people are tuned like a Swiss watch, and they had him out of there and over to the Capitol steps for a photo op before anyone could bat an eye. It was kids from Essex, and from some little hamlet in Virginia, and it made you remember what all this political sturm and drang was really about.

It gave you, cheesy as it may sound, Hope. Especially if you took the time to read the fine print on the t-shirts.

Back at Welch’s office, later in the day, they broke out the samples of Cabot Cheddar, and we talked over his afternoon trip to the White House. Obama had hosted the Progressive Caucus, for a free-wheeling discussion of health care and the Supplemental covering Iraq and Afghanistan.

Running on no sleep, my mouth full of sharp warm cheddar cheese, I couldn’t help but wonder: How in God’s name do they keep going at this pace every single day? Because everybody in the room was still kicking around the finer points of Single Payer versus Public Plan, and loving it.

Especially Welch. He offered me another piece of cheese and then ripped into another himself, and I mean with real gusto, like a man who finds himself precisely, to the half inch, where he ought to be.

[Many, many thanks to the Welch and Leahy folk who hosted me over the last two days. Much appreciated.]

April 29th, 2009

Continued DC Liveblogging: VDB Not, Repeat Not, Responsible For Specter Switch and Resulting Democratic Majority, Okay?

by Philip Baruth

Wanted to scotch the rumor, as quickly as possible, that VDB was the secret go-between linking the Democratic Party and Arlen Specter, and that our twenty-hour “blogging trip” to DC was in fact the final, frenzied machination needed to produce a filibuster-proof majority. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seriously. Pure and utter coincidence, folks. But did we blunder into a front-row seat at the Senate press conference where Leahy fielded his first questions about the switch? Oh yes we certainly did. Full story to follow.

April 28th, 2009

You May Have Wondered Why Welch and Al Gore Are Never Photographed Together

by Philip Baruth

There was a time when I desperately wanted Al Gore to win the Presidency. And then the Supreme Court shouldered its way in, Gore grew a beard, and I tried to forget. Then, before Obama announced, I desperately wanted Gore to take it to George W. Bush, for old time’s sake, and for new time’s sake. But the Oscar, the Nobel and yeoman’s work on global warming are their own justifications. Gore is his own man now, and comes across that way when he speaks. As in this clip from House hearings on climate change a few days ago, about three minutes in. You’ll want to watch this, because it’s beautiful:

The beauty part? Welch now occupies Gore’s father’s old House office. And to make the parallel as odd and remarkable as possible, Welch now also rents Al Gore’s old Washington apartment.

Like, the same apartment. Trippy, in a word.

On to a Leahy press conference, in which fraud will be prosecuted, to within an inch of its life. And as with the credit card press legislation, I say bring it.

April 28th, 2009

DC: Taking It To The Credit Card Types

by Philip Baruth

Elsewhere in the country, in this late postmodern Year of Our Lord 2009, we call them flashmobs: groups of committed types who message digitally and then congregate physically. Just for a few moments, and then the group disperses, leaving a meme in place, to live or die. In DC, this is called a press conference.

This morning Welch has credit cards on his mind. He thinks that the Credit Card Bill of Rights, while commendable, is incomplete without an overall cap on interest rates. It’s an issue Bernie has hammered away at for years, but now, as with many things post-Bush, it seems within reach.

Especially with help. Today Welch is tag-teaming with two other House members, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Congressman John Tierney (D-MA), on the steps of the Cannon House Office Building Terrace. And the beauty of both Hinchey and Tierney is that they’re both clearly pissed about this issue. Personally pissed. Which tends to make the words leap nicely off the podium.

And it’s nice, too, because this is an issue about which I, personally, am also pissed.

So I’m with Welch’s two teammates from the get-go, but Tierney in particular manages to put just that extra bit of pepper on the fast-ball. He’s working various formulations of the idea that either the House is with credit card holders, or the “usurious” and “unfair enrichment” of the credit card companies.

Add that to the fact that the guy’s a dead ringer for William Weld, and you can see why Massachusetts goes for him in a big way.

In the Q/A, a rumpled, slightly jaded looking reporter points out that a version of this legislation died last time out.

But Welch makes the difference clear: we’re in the post-TARP era now, with taxpayers pumping money into the banking system at .25% interest, money that is then lent to credit card holders at rates sometimes in excess of 40%.

Which is why charts help. It’s one thing to hear that you’re getting screwed; it’s another to see a bar graph of that same screwing.

Okay, that didn’t come out right, but you see my point.

And then the press conference is over, and everyone disperses, back into the massive stone buildings in which they spend their days. Except for the handicapped, who are out in force today, and are not taking no for an answer.

So I join the parade. It suddenly seems like the right thing to do.

April 28th, 2009

DC: Let the Liveblogging Begin

by Philip Baruth

Once upon a time there was a journalist and blogger named Darren Allen, who apparently went running with Peter Welch, very early in the morning. And so the Welch folk clearly remember this, and believe that other visiting journalists and bloggers might like to go running very early in the morning with the Congressman. But this was an error on their part; no one but Darren Allen will ever do this. So I met Welch after his run, for hotcakes with bad maple syrup.

According to the schedule, it will be a long day, with multiple press conferences, and hallway wrangling on efficiency, climate change, health care, you name it. But Welch seems to approach it with a good measure of philosophy.

In fact, the guy seems to love his job. Really love it, maybe even more than he expected. And he’s not the only one: staffer Paul Heintz was never this positive back in Brattleboro.

But first things first: bad cafeteria food, albeit served in green cups and plates and utensils. And as an added treat, the occasional political figure that only a connoisseur would recognize. This guy? Former Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, the guy who beat the field to take Rahm’s seat, representing Wrigley Field. Love this guy. Chicago in every intonation.

And that’s it, friends. Show time on capping credit card rates. And I’m all about taking it to the credit card companies, as often and as hard as possible. Yes, Lord.

April 28th, 2009

Dateline DC: Welch Wheres and Whys

by Philip Baruth

One thing anyone must admit about Peter Welch: he has displayed thus far in his Congressional career an absolutely uncanny knack for landing where landing will do the most good. From the Rules Committee in his first term, Welch leapt very precisely to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in his second. Why the move, if the Rules Committee carries such clout? Because John McCain lost the election, my friends.

The Wax, right

Which means that Energy and Commerce is now the crucible for climate change legislation. Which means that Committee Chair Henry Waxman needed people he could trust on the issue at his back. Which explains why a national version of Efficiency Vermont has already made its way into the draft version of the bill.

Which, as Cyrus said all those years ago at the beginning of The Warriors, is the way things ought to be.

Late “DC Is A Harsh Mistress” Update, Tuesday, 6:05 am:

Ouch. Missed this as I was drafting the post above in the wee hours of last night: Waxman has been forced to postpone markup of Waxman-Markey, ie. the climate change bill, due to Democratic opposition. And of course, this is the sort of self-interested push-back that might scuttle the plans of an ordinary committee chair. But we’re talking about the Wax here. And he’s a whole different animal. (Ask John Dingell.)

April 28th, 2009

Dateline DC: Team Welch, Unplugged

by Philip Baruth

The Bush Years activated a generation. And those who were already active became admittedly hyper-active. And with good cause: we saw the Cheney Rumsfeld Gonzalez Axis engaged in a daily, deliberate attempt to wreck the nation’s moral compass, in order to consolidate power in the Executive Branch.


So when Vermont’s Congressional seat opened up in 2005, I had in mind a candidate who would hit the ground running and only pick up speed from there.

Mission accomplished.

Peter Welch rolled over Martha Rainville in that 2006 election, and within weeks secured a coveted spot on the influential Rules Committee. He uncovered, publicized, and closed a major hole in the regulations concerning contracting in Iraq. He quickly formed a tag-team operation with oversight guru Henry Waxman, grilling countless Bush operatives just a hair shy of medium-well.

And given his friendly relationship with the current administration, Welch was pre-positioned to move legislation even more quickly, when Change came to Washington.

At the same time, he’s tended his fences so assiduously back in Vermont that Welch ran more or less unopposed in 2008. The one statistic that says it all: the GOP not only didn’t pour money into a race against this Freshman, they didn’t even run a candidate.

I’m in New York now, about to board for Dulles Airport. The idea is to see Team Welch in their own environment, at their own speed.

Which is to say, fast. More soon.

April 25th, 2009

VPR Commentary: About Those Pirates

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Free and back home after his time as a hostage, Captain Richard Phillips will be the guest of honor at a picnic this weekend in Underhill. But Commentator Philip Baruth is convinced that unfortunately the story of the Somali pirates is far from complete. Here’s Philip.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #230: About Those Pirates

Captain Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont is back home now, after one of the most harrowing cargo ship voyages in American history. Harrowing not just because Somali pirates held the Captain hostage in a lifeboat for five days, but harrowing because the global media picked up where the pirates left off.

Sure, the coverage of Phillips to date has been almost uniformly positive. But it’s never pretty to watch someone — an actual three-dimensional person and their family — packaged and sold two-dimensionally and around the clock on cable television.

The Phillips family has handled the media scrum with great dignity, but something about the pictures of row after row of satellite trucks parked just at the edge of their property line can’t help but set your teeth on edge. And it’s not just the trucks but the particular quality of the stories they’ve beamed into the sky over the last several weeks.

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business, that American readers only want two kinds of stories: Oh the wonder of it, and Oh the shame of it.

In other words, we want heroes or villains, and a story’s staying power depends primarily on how pure and unadulterated the heroism or villainy.

But of course there’s a third sort of story that Americans love even more — the pure hero who is slowly revealed to be the pure villain. Eliot Spitzer falls neatly into this last category, the avenging prosecutor who became the Governor of New York, only to be unmasked as a common john — and not even a common john but a john that prostitutes needed to warn one another about.

Do I think that the media will find a way to portray Captain Phillips as a villain somehow? No. Not that they wouldn’t if they could, but I don’t think there’s any way that they can. Phillips is the genuine article: a ship’s captain who offered his own life to save those of his crew.

But it’s fair to say that the hostage stand-off and its resolution were immediately politicized. Just moments after Navy SEALS shot three of the pirates, the Associated Press was portraying the resolution as an international victory for the Obama administration, and stressing the President’s active involvement in the final decision-making process.

And the physics of cable television are inexorable: if anyone anywhere declares anything a victory for the White House, then someone somewhere must declare it an act of cowardice, even treason.

In this case, a counter-narrative began to assert itself almost as quickly: that these pirates were teenagers, just boys really, boys possibly in withdrawal from an addictive leaf chewed by many Somalis called Khat. The mother of Abdiweli Muse, the one pirate captured and brought back to the United States, says her son was a good student who was forced into piracy by older men.

So in this counter-narrative, Captain Phillip’s Somali kidnappers become themselves the kidnapped, and the daring rescue by navy SEAls becomes a cruel and thoughtless abuse of power on the high seas.

Muse is scheduled to go on trial soon, and his defense lawyers will do their jobs: making their client appear as sympathetic as possible.

And the media will do its job as well: having expended the wonder of the tale of Captain Phillips and the Pirates, the cable news machine will then do its best to cover the story in shame, whatever shame it can find or manufacture.

Captain Phillips will be honored at a town picnic in Underhill this weekend, and the weather should be fine. But no one should be fooled by the sun and the speeches. This ordeal is not yet over, and not all the attackers make their living on the Indian Ocean.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]

April 24th, 2009

What To Ask Welch? It’s Yankee, Baby

by Philip Baruth

When we asked below for questions to take into a visit to Peter Welch’s Washington office, we did so with three purposes in mind: 1) to act as a conduit for citizen concerns, thus fulfilling the promise of netroots democracy; 2) to take a certain limited snapshot of the immediate political concerns of the web-based community; and 3) to see whether anyone would demand to know where Pepper is currently being held. But alas, no Free Pepper mail.

Pepper, center, handling day-to-day management of the much-lauded 2006 coordinated campaign

But to our surprise (not), a single issue revealed itself as that most likely to prompt impassioned email: Yankee. Fully three-quarters of the email we’ve received asks for Welch’s take on the spectrum of nuclear issues: safety, containment, upcoming appointments to the NRC, the future of the Vernon plant, the likelihood (post-Yucca Mountain) of waste remaining on-site into the distant future.

And good as our word, we will do our best to engage the Congressman on these nuclear issues. Many thanks to all who responded, and feel free to write on into next week, because we’ll be wireless and bored for hours on end in various depressing regional airports.

In unrelated news, a peer-reviewed map of cancer incidence in the wake of Three Mile Island, obviously produced by a rogue team of anti-nuclear scientists bent on depriving us of clean, safe, reliable power:

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