RNC still using fake census forms to raise money

A month after the House and Senate unanimously approved a bill restricting direct-mail pieces designed to look like census documents, the Republican National Committee is at it again:

An RNC mailer obtained by TPMmuckraker bears the words "Census Document" and, in all caps, "DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT," on the outside of the envelope. In smaller letters, it says: "This is not a U.S. government document." The new law requires, among other things, that such mailers state the name and address of the sender on the outside of the envelope -- something the RNC's missive doesn't appear to do. Inside, a letter from RNC chair Michael Steele, dated April 12, asks recipients to fill out a questionnaire about their political views, and solicits donations of as much as $500 or more. (See the mailer here.)

Last month, in response to virtually identical RNC mailers, members of both parties cried foul, raising the concern that the mailers could reduce the response rate for the actual Census -- which was mailed to Americans last month -- by confusing some voters. [...] Congress quickly passed a law -- the House vote was 416-0 -- requiring that mailers marked "census" state the name and address of the sender on the outside of the envelope, and contain an unambiguous disclaimer making clear that the mailer is not affiliated with the government.

Based on a PDF image, the mailer obtained by TPMmuckraker does not appear to state the sender's name and address on the outside. And the words "DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT" would appear to make the disclaimer that it's not a government document less than unambiguous.

The RNC's fundraising efforts have taken a hit this year, and Chairman Michael Steele is under pressure to turn things around, so I can't say I'm surprised by this desperate act.

On a related note, census mail-back rates exceeded expectations this year, which will save the U.S. Census Bureau hundreds of millions of dollars. The top five states so far in terms of census participation rate are Wisconsin (80 percent), Minnesota (79 percent), Iowa and Indiana (77 percent) and Nebraska (76 percent).

Department of strange rallying cries

Iowa Democrats and Republicans gathered for district conventions on Saturday. Jim Gibbons, the National Republican Campaign Committee's favorite in the seven-way IA-03 primary, had supporters wearing "Burn the Boats" t-shirts. He explained the symbolism toward the end of his speech to the delegates:

Gibbons talks about being a competitor, wanting to take down the champion and why this will be a tough race. Here is my rough transcript of the most intriguing part, beginning around the 3:30 mark:

If you look around this group right here, you'll see people who have never been a part of this process. They're new, they're young people, they've got those "Burn the Boats" shirts on. People ask, "What's that about?" Let me give you the explanation.

In the 1500s, the conqueror [Hernando] Cortés was going up against the Aztec army. He decided that to motivate his people, to get them fired up about the job that they had to do--they were outnumbered vastly--he made the decision: burn the boats. If we're successful, we'll go home in their boats.

That's the attitude of this campaign. That's what I'm about. I'm totally committed to beating Leonard Boswell. I have the resources, the will, the determination to beat him in November. I'm asking you to join me in this fight. We will win in November. I'm burning my boats, and I'm attacking the island, thank you and God bless.

Technically, Cortés scuttled (not burned) his ships in order to prevent another mutiny after one failed attempt. He wasn't motivating his troops by the prospect of winning and going home in Aztec boats; he was making them give up hope of returning from the new world. According to Wikipedia, the "popular misconception that Cortés burned the ships [...] may have come from a mistranslation of the version of the story written in Latin."

I get Gibbons' point: he's all in to win this race, having quit his job as a financial adviser when he decided to run for Congress. He's drawing an unspoken contrast with his chief Republican rival Brad Zaun, who has his Iowa Senate seat and a job in real estate to go back to if he loses to Boswell. Still, "burn the boats" seems weird for a campaign slogan, and I have to wonder whose idea it was to pick a greedy and brutal Spanish conquistador for a role model.

Speaking of strange historical inspiration, Josh Marshall is bewildered that "The Republican Governors Association is embracing the mantle of a 17th century radical who tried but failed to pull off a mass casualty terrorist attack to kill the King of England and all of Parliament." Michael Scherer reported for Time's Swampland blog,

The Republican Governors Association has embraced the symbolism of [Guy] Fawkes, launching a rather striking website, RememberNovember.com, with a video that showcases far more Hollywood savvy than one can usually expect from Republicans. Again, the Fawkes tale has been twisted a bit. This time, President Obama plays the roll of King James, the Democratic leadership is Parliament, and the Republican Party represents the aggrieved Catholic mass.

I've spent a few Guy Fawkes Days in the UK. The holiday is marked by fireworks and bonfires to celebrate the failure of Fawkes' plot. There's even a nursery rhyme, "Remember remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot." Republicans may have embraced the wrong hero out of confusion. Or perhaps Steve Benen is right: "the Republican mainstream made a right turn at scary, and have arrived right at stark raving mad."

Any comments about campaign strategy or sloganeering are welcome in this thread. I love the official statements from tea party favorite Dave Funk's campaign in Iowa's third district. Those often start out with the words, "Congress needs Funk."

Arizona immigration law thread

Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a law yesterday that makes it "a state crime to be in the country illegally" and "requires local law enforcement to determine an individual's immigration status if an officer suspects that person is in the country illegally." Civil rights groups are already preparing federal lawsuits, and President Barack Obama called the bill "misguided", adding, “I’ve instructed members of my admininstration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation."

The American Civil Liberties Union explained why we should be outraged about this law:

The law creates new immigration crimes and penalties inconsistent with those in federal law, asserts sweeping authority to detain and transport persons suspected of violating civil immigration laws and prohibits speech and other expressive activity by persons seeking work. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona strongly condemn the governor’s decision to sign the unconstitutional law and are dismayed by her disregard for the serious damage it could cause to civil liberties and public safety in the state.[...]

The new law, which will not go into effect for more than 90 days, requires police agencies across Arizona to investigate the immigration status of every person they come across whom they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe is in the country unlawfully. To avoid arrest, citizens and immigrants will effectively have to carry their "papers" at all times. The law also makes it a state crime for immigrants to willfully fail to register with the Department of Homeland Security and carry registration documents. It further curtails the free speech rights of day laborers and encourages unchecked information sharing between government agencies.

Naturally, conservatives who claim to be for small government love the expansion of police powers in Arizona.

Representative Raul Grijalva, one of the leaders of the House Progressive Caucus, closed his Arizona offices yesterday following threatening phone calls. Grijalva also "called on businesses and groups looking for convention and meeting locations to boycott Arizona." Already yesterday the American Immigration Lawyers Association canceled plans to hold the group's fall national convention in Scottsdale. A petition has been created to urge California's state pension fund to "divest from all Arizona companies" and sell all Arizona real estate.

The law may never be enforced, depending on what happens with the federal lawsuits, but some people are predicting it will boost support for Democrats among Latino voters.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. For comic relief, I recommend reading the official statement from Arizona Hispanic Republicans. After criticizing the (Republican) state legislators who spearheaded the bill and the (Republican) governor who signed the bill, they say they are "ultimately holding President Obama accountable," because "Obama promised Hispanics that he would pass immigration reform within 90 days of his Presidency. Had Obama carried out his promises to Hispanics last year, the Hispanic community would not be experiencing the crisis we are experiencing right now." That's quite a creative way to misdirect blame.

We don't need budget advice from Pawlenty

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was in Iowa this weekend to headline an event organized by Iowans for Tax Relief. The crowd cheered the future presidential candidate after Pawlenty blasted the Obama administration and proposed one bad idea after another.

Pawlenty's "economic bill of rights" includes requiring Congress to balance the budget every year. Freezing or reducing federal spending every time revenue drops is great if you like turning recessions into depressions, but basic economic facts won't stop Pawlenty from pandering to the "Party of Hoover" set. I wonder whether Pawlenty's proposed balanced budget amendment still includes "exceptions for war, natural disasters and other emergencies."

Pawlenty also wants line-item veto powers for the president. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that unconstitutional at the federal level, and it's unlikely Congress would ever approve a constitutional amendment on this matter.

In addition, Pawlenty favors extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Those tax cuts didn't prevent the most severe economic recession since World War II, but they did manage to massively increase our national debt and deficit while delivering most of the benefits to the top few percent of the population.

But wait, there's more to Pawlenty's wish list: "He also called for requiring a supermajority of Congress to raise taxes or the debt ceiling." Unfortunately, that would exacerbate our budget problems. When the Pew Center on the States examined state fiscal problems last year, a common feature of the states deemed "most like California" was a supermajority requirement for tax increases or budget decisions.

Speaking to the Iowans for Tax Relief crowd, Pawlenty bragged about getting Minnesota out of the top 10 states for taxes but glossed over other aspects of his record as governor. Iowa Republicans have hammered Democrats for supposedly "overspending," even though our state leaders have kept our budget balanced without depleting our state's reserve accounts. What would they say if they knew about Pawlenty's record?

During Pawlenty's first year as governor, the state drew down its reserves and relied too heavily on one-time revenue to address its budget problem. As a result, the state lost its Aaa bond rating from Moody's Investors Service; the state has yet to regain its Aaa rating from Moody's.

The 2009 report of the bi-partisan Minnesota Budget Trends Study Commission has recommended that the state build up its budget reserves and cash flow account in response to an increasingly unstable revenue outlook. All members of the Commission, including the five appointed by Governor Pawlenty, endorsed this recommendation.

Pawlenty and state legislators couldn't agree on an approach to balance the Minnesota budget. As a result, last year "Minnesota's [projected] budget gap was the largest in the nation on a per capita basis." Pawlenty can bash President Obama, but his state desperately needed the roughly $2.6 billion it received through the federal stimulus bill to help cover the shortfall. Even with the stimulus money, Minnesota was still billions of dollars short. So, in addition to some spending cuts, Pawlenty proposed "a bond issue that would be paid for by existing and forecast revenues from the tobacco settlement—a one-time fix disliked by some because it aimed to use long-term borrowing to pay for current state operations."

To be clear: Pawlenty wanted the state of Minnesota to borrow money to pay its bills. In contrast, Iowa's state borrowing program (I-JOBS) is funding capital investments in infrastructure. Last summer, Iowans for Tax Relief in effect ran the Republican campaign for a special election in Iowa House district 90. During that campaign, the Republican candidate made false and misleading claims about Iowa's state budget and borrowing. How ironic that the Iowans for Tax Relief crowd gave a standing ovation to a panderer with a much worse record of fiscal management.

Not only did Pawlenty want Minnesota to borrow money to pay its bills, he also decided that underfunding local governments and forcing them to draw down their own reserves was a good way to control spending for the 2010-2011 budget period. Yes, Pawlenty decided in 2009 that cutting aid to local governments by hundreds of millions of dollars was a good way to balance the state budget:

“Many [cities], if not all, have reserve funds, or rainy day funds, and they should use them,” Pawlenty said.

He also talked of the option cities have of raising property taxes to make up for any LGA [local government aid] cuts.

One of the Republican talking points against Iowa Governor Chet Culver is that his midyear budget cuts supposedly forced local governments to raise property taxes. Yet Pawlenty gets a free pass from his Iowa friends. Culver's across-the-board budget cut last October wasn't popular, but it did keep state government from overspending. In contrast, late last year Minnesota's cash flow was so poor that state officials considered short-term borrowing to meet budget obligations.

"It's a bad sign," said former state Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison, now chief financial officer with Minneapolis public schools. "It signals you didn't have good fiscal discipline."

Minnesota has muddled through without borrowing money to pay bills so far, but prospects for later this year are dicey:

State budget officials updated lawmakers [April 12] on Minnesota's precarious cash-flow situation. They all but ruled out short-term borrowing for the 2010 budget year that ends June 30.

Budget director Jim Schowalter says "deep cash problems" loom for the 2011 fiscal year. Barring law changes, spending cuts and upticks in revenue, he says the state might have to take out short-term loans to meet its obligations.

The Minnesota Budget Bites blog takes a more detailed look at the state's "troublesome" picture for fiscal year 2011. BulliedPulpit posted a good rebuttal of "TPawnomics" at MN Progressive Project. The last thing our country needs is budget advice from Tim Pawlenty.

Weekend open thread: Not ready for prime time edition

Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts said this week that he's against the proposed financial reforms because they would be "an extra layer of regulation." As Kevin Drum noted, that's "like saying that you don't want better brakes on your car because 'they're going to slow me down.'" But Brown had more empty talking points to share:

Brown left open the possibility that he could support a compromise.

"I want to see when it's going to come up, how it's going to come up,'' he said. "I'm always open to trying to work something through so it is truly bipartisan.''

Brown, whose vote could be critical as Democrats seek to find a GOP member to avoid a filibuster, assiduously avoided talking about specifics.

When asked what areas he thought should be fixed, he replied: "Well, what areas do you think should be fixed? I mean, you know, tell me. And then I'll get a team and go fix it.''

Give me a break. The guy has no idea what's in the bill or why Republicans are supposed to be against it, but he wants to make sure you know he's all for teamwork and being "bipartisan."

In the comments, let us know who else isn't ready for prime time, or or share anything else that's on your mind this weekend. The two leading Republicans in my home district (IA-03, D+1), aren't making me scared that they will defeat seven-term incumbent Leonard Boswell. More on their recent boneheaded moves at Bleeding Heartland.

If you're interested in the upcoming British elections, you can watch the recent party leaders' debate here.

Another short-term extension of unemployment benefits becomes law

The Senate approved another short-term extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 59 to 39 (roll call). The bill also extends COBRA benefits (related to keeping your health insurance after leaving your job) and delays a planned cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. (Click here for the text of the bill. Three Republicans joined Senate Democrats to support the bill: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio. Scott Brown of Massachusetts voted to end a filibuster of the bill earlier this week, but stuck with the GOP caucus on all procedural votes yesterday.

The House of Representatives quickly passed the bill as amended by the Senate. The bill had more bipartisan support in the House, with 49 Republicans joining 240 Democrats (roll call).

President Barack Obama signed the bill last night, but Congress will revisit this issue soon, because the new law extends unemployment benefits only until June 2 and other measures through the end of May.

Obama orders end to discrimination by hospitals

President Barack Obama has instructed the Health and Human Services department to develop new rules for hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

The memorandum from Obama to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, made public late Thursday night, orders new rules that would ensure hospitals "respect the rights of patients to designate visitors."

Obama says the new rules should require that hospitals not deny visitation privileges on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay," Obama says in the memo.

Affected, he said, are "gay and lesbian American who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."

Cue conservatives to start whining about "special rights for homosexuals," as if there is something extraordinary about visiting a loved one in the hospital or granting your life partner power of medical attorney. I'm glad the president took a stand on this issue.

I'm curious to see how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reacts to this executive order. I don't know whether Catholic hospitals are more likely to have rules in place preventing visitation by gay or lesbian partners, but I would expect religious conservatives to complain about the government nullifying such rules. I wonder whether there is even grounds to challenge Obama's order in court, if hospitals could demonstrate that their visitation bans are grounded in religious principles.

IA-Sen: Conlin outraises Grassley in 1Q

Iowa Democrat Roxanne Conlin raised more money than five-term incumbent Senator Chuck Grassley in the first quarter. She gave her U.S. Senate campaign $250,000 during the first three months of 2010 and raised nearly $630,000 from other donors. (She is not accepting any PAC contributions). Grassley raised $613,577 in the first quarter and has over $5 million cash on hand, compared to just $1 million for Conlin. Still, she has now raised "more than all of Grassley's past challengers combined," according to a campaign press release. More numbers from that release:

FACTS:

No PAC or Washington lobbyist funds.

81 percent of donors are Iowans.

78 percent of contributions are $100 or less.

Breakdown:

Campaign to date raised: $1,483,191

First Quarter 2010 raised: $629,615

Candidate contribution: $250,000

First Quarter PAC Money: $0

First Quarter Federal Lobbyist Money: $0

First Quarter 2010 total: $879,615

Cash on hand: $1,000,455

Those are impressive numbers for a challenger, especially since Grassley is not considered one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents. Grassley's last Democratic opponent, Art Small, only raised about $136,000 during the whole 2004 campaign, and about $70,000 of that total came from the candidate himself.

I knew Conlin was holding a lot of fundraisers, but I am surprised that she was able to out-raise the incumbent for the quarter even if you don't count her own large contribution to the campaign. While she won't be able to match Grassley's spending, she will have the resources to run a statewide campaign, assuming she wins the June 8 Democratic primary. I haven't seen first-quarter numbers for the other Democratic candidates, Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen, but at year-end Fiegen had about $400 on hand, and Krause had about $3,500.

At Iowa Independent, Jason Hancock covered a recent dustup among the Democratic candidates over debates before the primary. I hope we will see some debates in addition to candidate forums, and I hope the final weeks of the primary campaign won't become too divisive. I plan to vote for Conlin, whose work I have long admired and who is best positioned to make the race competitive. Not only has she raised money, she will have a strong volunteer base. Just in my own precinct I know several Democrats who are not inclined to volunteer for Governor Chet Culver but will knock on doors or make phone calls for Conlin. By next Monday she will have held campaign events in all 99 Iowa counties.

Tax day links and open thread

Although most Americans say their income taxes are fair, today is "Christmas in April" for Republican politicians trying to stir up resentment about the tax burden. As I mentioned yesterday, last year's stimulus bill contained tax cuts for 98 percent of American families and particularly helped lower and middle-income families. Gail Collins commented,

Thanks to the tax credits in President Obama’s stimulus plan and other programs aimed at helping working families, couples with two kids making up to $50,000 were generally off the hook this year.

Naturally, anti-tax groups held rallies to thank the president for doing so much to reduce the burden on the half of the country least able to pay. Not.

One of the biggest tax breaks in the stimulus bill reduces taxes owed by $400 for individual filers and $800 for married couples filing jointly, but reportedly this credit and the accompanying "Schedule M" have confused many people.

Here's a truly disturbing trend mostly ignored by the media. Annie Lowrey reports that in recent years the IRS has shifted toward more audits of mom-and-pop businesses and less scrutiny of the big corporations that "can defraud the federal government for much more vast amounts than their smaller counterparts."

At today's anti-tax rallies, some speakers will argue for a "flat tax," meaning that the income tax would be set at the same level regardless of your income. That's a bad idea, which hasn't worked in countries that have adopted it.

Other conservatives, such as Representative Steve King (IA-05) and presidential contender Mike Huckabee, will repeat their support for a "fair tax," which would replace the income tax with a huge consumption tax. That's a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad idea.

Speaking of conservative fantasy-land, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa decided to make stuff up during a conference call with reporters yesterday:

Grassley spoke of his belief that America is sliding toward a European-style economy. Actually, he said the Obama adminstration is moving the country in that direction, so he envisions President Barack Obama will ask for a tax increase via a value-added tax, since he can’t politically backtrack and increase income taxes on middle income people.

“They are going to need European-type taxes to maintain it, and that’s where the value-added tax comes in,” Grassley said. “...They just can’t get enough money from taxing wealthy people, to do all the things that they want to do. So you can add a value-added tax, and it is a hidden tax, because it is built into the price of the commodity you’ll buy. So, they can increase taxes on middle income taxpayers, contrary to what they promised in the election.”

Riiiight.

Today's rallies will surely generate a lot of media coverage, as well as some controversy over how significant the "tea party" movement is. News Corpse is skeptical about the political strength of tea partiers.

I'm watching several upcoming Republican primaries as a test of the tea party in Iowa. We have four-way primaries in Iowa's first and second Congressional districts and seven declared Republican candidates in the third district. I expect establishment favorites to win all three of those primaries, but each race has at least one candidate trying to fill the "tea party" niche. If any of them do surprisingly well despite a financial disadvantage, that will be a sign of real grassroots power for the movement here.

Share any thoughts about taxes or tea partiers in this thread. I'll be back later to comment, after waiting in line at the post office for who knows how long to mail my return (note to self: get this done earlier next year!).

The stimulus was the biggest middle-class tax cut in history

I was disappointed by some compromises made to pass the stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in February 2009. I felt President Obama made too many concessions in the fruitless pursuit of Republican votes, and that too much of the cost went toward tax cuts that would be slower-acting and less stimulative than certain forms of government spending.

That said, the tax cuts in the stimulus will help tens of millions of American families, particularly those with working-class or middle-class incomes. Citizens for Tax Justice has calculated that "the major tax cuts enacted in the 2009 economic stimulus bill actually reduced federal income taxes for tax year 2009 for 98 percent of all working families and individuals." In terms of the number of Americans who benefited, the stimulus bill was the biggest tax cut in history.

In addition, "the estimated $282 billion in tax cuts [from the stimulus] over two years is more than either of the 2001-2002 or the 2004-2005 Bush tax cuts or the Kennedy or Reagan tax cuts." George W. Bush's tax cuts were more costly to the U.S. Treasury over a 10-year period, but as Anonymous Liberal noted last year,

The Bush tax cuts were skewed dramatically toward the wealthy. In 2004, 60% of the tax cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners with over 25% going to the top 1% of income earners. Those numbers have increased since then as the cuts to the estate tax have taken effect.

Tomorrow is the deadline for most Americans to file their tax returns, and Republicans will try to harness the tea party movement's anger at what they view as excessive taxes and spending. However, many ordinary people may be shocked to learn how large their refunds are this year. According to the White House, "the average tax refund is up nearly 10 percent this year."

Democrats should not be afraid to vigorously defend the stimulus bill during this year's Congressional campaigns. I wish the recovery act had been larger and better targeted, but the bottom line is that Republicans voted against the largest ever middle-class tax cut.

The White House website has this Recovery Act Tax Savings Tool to help people find benefits to which they are entitled. The White House press office released this fact sheet with much more detailed information on April 12. Note: if you have already filed your taxes, you can amend them after April 15 to collect on any credits from the stimulus bill that you missed.

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