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Essential Summer Reading, Domestic Politics

I am taking a couple of weeks off. But while I’m away, I thought I’d share with you some of the what I consider to be this year’s essential readings on politics. Today, I want to look at some of the crucial issues that underlie domestic politics in America.

In "60 Was the Loneliest Number" (The American Prospect, January 20), Mark Schmitt explains why the idea of a “filibuster-proof majority” was an illusion. On the contrary, he argues that the fact that the Democrats nominally had 60 votes actually made it a “filibuster-dependent Senate.”

Everything came down to a question of whether the party could break a filibuster—and 90 percent of the time on big questions, with the single exception of a miraculous and not-final vote on health reform, the party would not be able to. With 60 votes, Democrats were expected to be able to get things done, and bloggers on the left could chide Max Baucus for wasting six weeks trying to negotiate with some Republicans on health care. Yet in the end, achieving anything would be entirely dependent on de facto co-presidents Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, one a genuinely malevolent force and the other just a hack, both of whom damaged the public perception of the health-care bill in significant ways.

In "The Quiet Revolution" (The New Republic, February 1), John B. Judis argues that President Obama’s greatest achievement may be rebuilding the regulatory apparatus that Republican presidents since Reagan have worked so hard to dismantle.

Yet there is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for—but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century.

In "The Media-Lobbying Complex" (The Nation, February 11), Sebastian Jones reports on the shocking extent to which news shows solicit the commentary of experts without revealing that they are actually highly-paid lobbyists working. At one point, former Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe actually guest-hosted Countdown With Keith Olbermann without disclosing that he was working for a public relations firm that specialized in “strategies for managing corporate reputation.”

Since 2007 at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials—people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests—have appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them. Many have been regulars on more than one of the cable networks, turning in dozens—and in some cases hundreds—of appearances.

Finally, in "Why the U.S. Is Also Giving Brazilians Farm Subsidies" (Time, April 9), Michael Grunwald tells how, rather than discontinue cotton subsidies that violate our trade agreements, the Department of Agriculture agreed to pay almost $150 million of subsidies to Brazilian cotton growers.

Cotton subsidies are a particularly egregious form of corporate welfare, funneling about $3 billion a year to fewer than 20,000 planters who tend to use inordinate amounts of water, energy and pesticides. But the World Trade Organization (WTO) doesn't prohibit dumb subsidies. It only prohibits subsidies that distort trade and hurt farmers in other countries.

And yes, U.S. cotton subsidies do that too. By encouraging Americans to plant cotton even when prices are low, they promote overproduction and further depress prices. An Oxfam study found that removing them entirely would boost world prices about 10%, which would be especially helpful to the 20,000 subsistence cotton growers in Africa.
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