12/02/2011 09:15 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2012

Friday Talking Points -- Fine With Me!

Governments -- state and federal -- have three big ways of raising money. The first, of course, is taxes, which are endlessly fought over and usually get most of politicians' attention. The second is fees -- on a state level, registering a car or getting a driver's license; on a federal level getting a passport or becoming naturalized, for instance. But the third one hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention at the federal level: fines.

Because the states are strapped for cash, they've taken several measures to increase revenue. Taxes have been raised in some states (and lowered in others). Going down to the D.M.V. (or M.V.A., or whatever your state calls their drivers' license bureau) has gotten more expensive for most people. And, on the state level, fines have gone through the roof. That parking ticket which used to cost 10 or 12 bucks now can cost $50 or $60. Minor speeding tickets often cost hundreds of dollars now.

So why isn't the federal government getting behind this idea? Raising fines is good politics, for the most part. After all, to incur a fine, you have to have done something wrong. The fine itself is a punishment. So it's easier for a politician to vote for raising a fine than it is to raise a fee or a tax, it would seem.

This came to light with the news that a federal judge had turned down a deal made between Big Banking and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The S.E.C. had done a deal, and wanted the judge to approve it. The deal wasn't exactly a "sweetheart" deal, but it was a lot more lenient than it could have been (one is reminded of Bart Simpson pleading before a judge: "I move for a decision of 'boys will be boys,' Your Honor..."). The judge turned it down.

However this story plays out, it came to light that the settlement was small, in part, because the structure of fines isn't robust enough. Congress hasn't updated the fine structure for businesses behaving badly, to put it another way.

So here's my proposal: Congress should pass a new schedule of fines. Each would be worded thusly: "the fine shall be $10 million, or 10 percent of the profits the company reported on its annual shareholders' report last year, whichever is larger." That'd be for a minor fine, of course, like a parking ticket. A bigger infraction would lead to, say, "50 percent," or "100 percent," or even higher.

This makes the fine proportional to the size of the business. Which, for all of those "too big to fail" banks, would hit them in their pocketbooks a little harder. Heck, you could even add in "plus all executive compensation for the past year," as well. If the federal budget needs some money, I say this is an excellent place to find it.

In other words, it'd be just fine with me.

Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Moving right along to the awards (I am trying to make these columns shorter, really!)...

We have two Most Impressive Democrat of the Week awards to hand out... although one of them falls into a questionable area of our eligibility rules, but we're feeling generous today, so there.

Two governors this week called upon the Obama administration to reclassify marijuana as a "Schedule II" drug. The only difference between "Schedule I" (as it is currently classified) and "Schedule II" is that a doctor can prescribe it. That's it. Schedule II drugs include plenty of things which are illegal to possess without a prescription, such as cocaine, opium, PCP, and methamphetamine. In other words, this isn't going to "legalize" marijuana -- but it is an acceptance of medical fact. One-third of the state jurisdictions (16 states plus D.C.) have now made medical marijuana legal. The federal government itself provides medical marijuana to a tiny handful of patients. There is simply no excuse for not moving marijuana to Schedule II, at least not one without the word "politics" in it. I've ranted about this before at great length (just a few months ago, in fact), if you're interested in further details.

For boldly standing up and calling on the federal government to stop harassing state attorneys general who are trying to come up with some sensible and workable regulations, to stop harassing patients and caregivers, and in general to put marijuana on a scientific footing (rather than one born of political expedience), both Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee deserve MIDOTW awards this week.

Now, while Gregoire is a Democrat, Chafee used to be a Republican. He was a Republican senator from his state before he became governor. But now he says he's an Independent, and that's good enough for us (we certainly have bent this rule many times for Joe Lieberman). When he was in the Senate, he was more liberal than many Democrats, and left as the most liberal Republican senator in the past few decades. Since he's got an "I" next to his name now, we're going to say he's eligible.

The only question I have after this announcement is "Where are all the other Democratic governors?" Why was Gregoire the only one bold enough to get in front of this issue?

[Congratulate Governor Christine Gregoire on her official contact page, and Governor Lincoln Chafee on his official contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

Democrats had more success with their bill to extend the "payroll tax holiday" this week than Republicans did, by far. But, for some reason, three Democrats (well, two Democrats and one Independent, technically) voted with the Republicans against the Democratic bill. This is the idea to continue a $1,000-1,500 tax break for over 160 million working Americans, and to pay for it by raising the taxes three-and-a-quarter cents on the dollar for the 350,000 people who make more than a million dollars a year.

This was a procedural vote, meaning it needed 60 votes to overcome Republican intransigence. The final vote was 51-49 in favor, and that was only because Susan Collins crossed the aisle and voted with the Democrats. Three Democrats voted against it -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester from Montana, and Bernie Sanders from Vermont (who is the Independent, but usually votes with Democrats).

The bad news for Republicans is that they followed up this vote with one on a competing Republican plan, which would have given 200,000 federal workers the pink slip as a Christmas present to pay for the tax holiday extension (some holiday!). The Republican plan was voted down with a whopping 78-20 vote. Twenty-six Republicans voted with the Democrats against the bill. More Republicans, in other words, voted against their own plan than voted for it.

Cracks are appearing in the Republican stonewall. But the only way these cracks can widen is if Democrats stand together at this critical moment. Fifty Democrats stood together this week. Three did not. To those three we award this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[Contact Senator Joe Manchin on his Senate contact page, Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, and Senator Jon Tester on his Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]

Friday Talking Points

Volume 190 (12/2/11)

Because this is the fight of the week (and will be, until they pass it or go home), we're going to devote all the talking points this week to the efforts by Democrats to pass both the payroll tax holiday extension and a desperately-needed unemployment insurance payment extension before the January 1 deadline.

This week, for once, Democrats are actually doing a pretty good job of framing this issue. It's a real win-win issue for Democrats because it shows they're championing the middle class, and it also flummoxes Republicans because they are, in essence, having to vote to raise taxes (which must be causing heads to explode all over Capitol Hill).

Six out of our seven talking points this week come straight from the mouths of Democratic leaders. Well, OK, the one at the end is simply using a Republican's political squirmitude against him, but we threw it in there just for fun.


   Up or down vote!

This is an oldie but a goodie, and for the life of me I can't understand why Democrats don't use this term in every other sentence they utter in public, the way Republicans used to do so effectively.

Democrats are demanding an up-or-down vote in the Senate so we can go home for the holidays knowing we've lowered taxes on 190 million working Americans next year. Republicans, who used to demand such up-or-down votes all the time, are essentially filibustering a tax cut for 190 million hardworking Americans. Who ever thought we'd see this day? We have a bipartisan majority in the Senate ready to pass this bill tomorrow -- if only Republicans would let us hold a fair up-or-down vote without filibustering a big tax cut for middle class Americans. If you live in a state with a Republican senator (whose last name is not 'Collins'), we urge you to give them a call and let them know how you feel about them filibustering a $1,500 tax cut for you, starting in January. Tell them: Give us an up-or-down vote!


   Time is running out

Three of these quotes are from a press conference Nancy Pelosi just held with Steny Hoyer to talk about the bill. Throughout all of these comments runs a clock-ticking theme: time is indeed fast running out. Here is Pelosi, from the presser (by "these two" she means "extending the payroll tax holiday and extending unemployment benefits," just to clarify):

But these two are very important because they expire on January 1, December 31. We can't leave here without passing these. We have to stop toying with the American people and their economic security. We really do. It is a job -- we know that we have to do it. It's time for us to sit down and do this in a bipartisan way as we did when President Bush was president. Christmas is coming. Families are concerned. The deadline of December 31 is fast upon us.


   Democratic bill -- the bipartisan one

Heap praise on Susan Collins for her brave stance on the bill. Any bipartisan outreach should be warmly supported. Here's Harry Reid:

I was encouraged to see one Republican join Democrats in asking millionaires to pay their fair share. But because every other Republican continues to insist on protecting millionaires, middle class families could face a $1,000 tax increase next year. Democrats will not stop fighting to avoid that outcome. I hope Republicans will decide that the economic security of hard-working Americans is more important than protecting the wealthiest one percent.


   Most Republicans voted against their own plan

Use the fractiousness of the Republicans on the issue as a hammer. A 26-20 split in the party in the Senate is rather large news. Drive this wedge home with every chance you get. Here is Chuck Schumer, showing us how to do so:

These votes showed that Republicans simply don't care to extend this tax cut for the middle class, no matter how it is paid for. Senator McConnell vowed on Tuesday that a majority of Republicans would support an extension, but more than half of them opposed their own party's version of this proposal. Republicans continue to care more about protecting tax breaks for millionaires than preventing a tax hike on the middle class.


   Funny which tax cuts have to be paid for, isn't it?

This is an excellent point. Awfully funny that "Democratic" tax cuts "have to be paid for" while "Republican" tax cuts... um, what was it? "Pay for themselves" or some such tommyrot?

Nancy Pelosi, again:

And the fact is, we know what we have to do. If we have to pay for the payroll tax cut, and we are perfectly willing to do that, even though the Republicans never want to pay for the tax cut for the wealthiest people in our country. Doesn't that strike you as funny? For the middle-income tax cut it has to be paid for. Tax cuts for the wealthy, we don't pay for that.


   Coal in the stocking

Steny Hoyer, also present at the Pelosi presser, injected a holiday theme into the dialog.

Coal in the stocking ought not to be what we leave for the American people at the end of this year. We are going to have some three million people who are going to be without [the] ability to support themselves and their families if we don't pass the unemployment insurance [extension] and do it in the next few days. An awful lot of people, working men and women, average-salaried people, are going to find their salaries, their take-home pay reduced if we do not extend and follow the president's recommendation for both individuals and small businesses.


   You're a mean one, Mister Grinch

Hopefully this will only be the first of such analogies. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, also getting into the spirit of the season, put out the a video, titled The Grinch Who Stole Jobs. Now, this video does indeed have a snappy title, which refers to John Boehner (who is skewered in the video). But the best quote from it we can run is:

Don't be such a Grinch.

In actual fact, this looks like a video that used to be brilliant before some lawyer told the video guy "all that Grinch stuff is copyrighted, sorry, you can't use it." In other words, it is begging to be expanded-upon and mashed-up with a nice "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch" soundtrack and everything. But even if a better video isn't forthcoming, the "Mister Grinch" theme should indeed be picked up as a talking point by Democrats everywhere if only for the fact that it's such a fun one to use.

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