Morning Must Reads -- Mining disaster for political advantage 

Washington Post -- West Virginia mine has been cited for myriad safety violations

The day that at least 25 miners were killed in a West Virginia coal mine blast, the U.S. secretary of Labor said that they would not have “died in vain.”

What Secretary Hilda Solis apparently meant was that this tragedy would be put to good use – exploited in an effort to crack down on Don Blankenship, a non-union coal operator who espouses conservative political views and spends big money to beat Democrats in elections.

Make no mistake, the reports of repeated ventilation problems at the Upper Big Branch coal mine are troubling.

Upper Big Branch is an unusually large operation in one of the most dangerous regions to mine coal – high methane levels and fairly tight working areas make deep mining in Central Appalachia tough. If the coal were not the most desirable in the world, no one would mine there at all. It burns hot and clean and is high demand by steelmakers, and with the demise of the U.S. steel industry, that means India and China.

Having good ventilation is the first safety rule of Central App. We don’t know what caused the explosion – an electric arc, a spark from metal on metal, etc. – but the real question will be how methane levels got so high.

The coverage of the disaster hasn’t focused on the handful of actual warning signs but instead on the volume of complaints from federal regulators. TV newscasters and reporters repeat over and over again that the mine had received “thousands” of citations or paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Diane Sawyer has been the most over the top, but the theme of most of the reporting has been that this is the Toyota Prius of coal mines – a runaway safety problem overlooked by federal investigators. It all forgets that all mines are being constantly written up and fined. It’s a hovering regulatory presence that works more like a health code inspection at restaurants than consumer product safety. Small problems get written up and corrected. Any big problems or an accumulation of un-remedied small ones get you shut down.

Believe me when I say that the Obama administration would hardly have punished a mine regulator who wanted to shut down a Massey mine. The company is the biggest producer in Central Appalachia. Like most of the industry it runs non-union, but the region where Massey mines is the last stand of the United Mine Workers of America – there’s no way to convince coal miners in Wyoming to pay dues and join up, but bitter hatreds left over from mine wars make Appalachia more fertile ground for union organization.

Writers Steve Mufson, Jerry Markon and Ed O’Keefe did the best job of reporters at the big dailies of providing some of that context (the NYT story was particularly ripe cheese – quoting Blankenship’s political foe Rep. Nick Joe Rahall as an unbiased source, etc.).

Kudos to Gov. Joe Manchin, whose hometown lost 78 men to a mine explosion in 1968, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller for being focused on disaster response and investigation rather than retribution and point scoring like Solis and Rahall.

“Massey and its outspoken chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, have long been lightning rods for criticism among environmentalists, labor leaders and lawmakers.

Blankenship has called congressional Democrats seeking climate-change legislation ‘greeniacs,’ and he has said, ‘I don't believe that climate change is real.’

His opposition to organized mine labor -- the Upper Big Branch coal mine is non-unionized -- has also earned him the enmity of union leaders.”


Los Angeles Times -- Afghan President Karzai's anti-Western remarks leave many guessing sincerity

What’s up with Hamid Karzai? He says he’d be better off joining the Taliban and says the Westerners who have propped him up are actually trying to undermine him.

It’s earned several reproaches from Washington, including the threat of withdrawing an invitation to call on Obama next month.

Writer Laura King gives us some useful context.

Most assume that it’s political posturing for Afghan consumption – yanking Uncle Sam’s beard.

But there could be more:

Concern about Karzai's mercurial temperament is taking on strategic dimensions as the United States and its allies engage in a military buildup and prepare for what they describe as the most important offensive of the Afghanistan conflict, a campaign to wrest the southern province of Kandahar from the Taliban.

The province is the Afghan leader's birthplace and the home turf of his politically influential Popalzai tribe. Without the president's public backing, the campaign would be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, Western military officials acknowledge.


Wallison and Skeel -- The Dodd Bill: Bailouts Forever

Economist Peter Wallison and Penn Law Professor David Skeel explain what’s the matter with the Obama-Dodd financial regulatory plan in the best, most understandable fashion I’ve seen.

There are smaller-scale problems that relate to how credit cards would be regulated, how new powers would be allocated, etc.

But the big worry is making the idea of bank bailouts and “too big to fail” a permanent fixture of the American economy.

Wallsion and Skeel are arguing for the use of bankruptcy courts, not federal regulators to deal with the fallout of the next Lehman Brothers. But it’s the underlying explanation that’s really of interest.

“The difference between the Lehman bankruptcy and what the Dodd bill proposes is important to understand. The Dodd bill provides for a $50 billion fund, collected in advance from large financial firms, that will be used for the resolution process. In other words, the creditors of any company that is resolved under the Dodd bill have a chance to be bailed out. That's what these outside funds are for. But if the creditors are to take most of the losses—as they did in Lehman—a fund isn't necessary.

Which system is more likely to eliminate the moral hazard of too big to fail? In a bankruptcy, as in the Lehman case, the creditors learned that when they lend to weak companies they have to be careful. The Dodd bill would teach the opposite lesson.”


Wall Street Journal -- Cash Scarcity Concerns GOP

A member of the Republican National Committee has resigned in protest over Michael Steele’s spending habits. RNC media consultant Alex Castellanos says it’s time for Steele to step down. Another questionable charge – this time for almost $1,000 in “office supplies” at a Vermont winery – has cropped up. Steele has continued to purge outsiders from the party and surround himself with veterans of his failed Senate campaign.

It’s starting to feel like the ouster train is leaving the station.

While all of the drama Steele has generated is catnip to TV producers, it’s the dollars and cents that matter to the party leaders who will ultimately decide if it’s worth the trouble of booting Steele and giving him the chance to play the victim and join Scott McClellan and David Frum in the MSNBC green room.

Writer Brody Mullins, who does it better than the rest, follows the money and looks at how expenses at the RNC have surged along with contributions.

“Raising money from smaller donors costs far more than drawing large contributions, according to people who work in the field. For each dollar raised from a small-dollar donor, a political party typically spends about 75 cents on mail, phone calls and other solicitations.

"The RNC is raising a lot money, but the costs of raising the money is very high," said Mr. Emineth, the North Dakota chairman.

The RNC's Regents are required to raise about $60,000 for the committee by writing personal checks or bundling donations from others. In interviews, six of these large-dollar donors said they had not contributed to the RNC in this election cycle because they had not heard from Mr. Steele. The donors asked that their names not be publicized.”


New York Times -- U.S. Court Curbs F.C.C. Authority on Web Traffic

The effort to regulate the Internet like the old land-line telephone system predates the Obama administration. The Bush FCC wanted “net neutrality” too, and now the Obama team is pushing even harder for the right to regulate the Internet too.

But while courts in the 1970s and 80s may have been keen to break up the Bells and force phone carriers to share their lines with competitors, judges are less inclined to deprive the progenitors of new online networks to give up the fruits of their capital investments so quickly.

What Tuesday’s decision holds is that you can give preference to your customers on your network. The FCC wanted to make Comcast and others open up their fiber to everyone. The ruling allows them to charge more for the use of more bandwidth.

Now, the Internet crackdown will go to Congress where the FCC looks to Democrats to expand the agency’s power.

Writer Edward Wyatt explains:

“Tuesday’s ruling was the latest in a string of court decisions that rebuffed efforts by the F.C.C. to expand its regulatory authority, noted Eli M. Noam, a professor of finance and economics at the Columbia University graduate business school and the director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information.

‘The F.C.C. is going to have to be more careful in how it proceeds,’ he said, suggesting that the agency would have to structure policy decisions that were more broadly acceptable to the major telecommunications industry players in order to give them some legitimacy.”


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About The Author

Chris Stirewalt


Washington Examiner Political Editor Chris Stirewalt, who coordinates political coverage for the newspaper and in addition to writing a twice-weekly column and
regular blog posts.

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