They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

The Federal Election Commission, the agency that administers and enforces campaign finance laws, has shut down.

How big of a deal is that? Well, the consequences will not be immediately felt -- but if it stays shut down, it could significantly affect the 2008 elections.

As of now, the FEC has only two commissioners. It needs four to do anything. The reason for the shortage, of course, is the Senate stalemate over vote-suppression guru Hans von Spakovsky's nomination. Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL), Russ Feingold (D-WI) and others have opposed Republicans' efforts to have Spakovsky bundled with three other FEC nominees (2 Dems and another Republican).

And when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to hold up-or-down votes on each of the nominees separately in December, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked it. And that's where things stand. The White House says that it's standing behind Spakovsky (even though he's packed his bags and gone).

The FEC's shutdown could affect the election in a number of ways. The first and most obvious is the oversight role it plays with third party groups, such as 527s and nonprofits that spend tens of millions of dollars each election. But there are other -- probably greater -- ramifications.

For instance, the FEC disburses public matching funds for candidates. Since it's shutdown, it's prevented from doing that. And since John Edwards is the highest profile candidate to participate in that system, it might become a problem for him.

In December, The Washington Post hit on this, and Edwards staffers pronounced themselves unconcerned:

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As far as dirty tricks go, I'm sure we're going to see a lot worse this campaign, especially when it comes to the general election.

But the anonymous letters sent to Iowa pastors supporting Mike Huckabee still deserve a tip of the hat:

Rev. Brad Sherman of Iowa was kind enough to pass this one along. He said it came in an envelope with no return address and addressed with a printed mailing label. Enclosed was a printout from the IRS website.

It's not clear yet how many people received this letter. Huckabee's spokesman has made noises about possibly seeking a criminal investigation, but given the crudeness and lameness of the attempt (if you're going to pull a dirty trick, why not at least pose as the IRS or the Justice Department?), I doubt that would get very far. Clearly it didn't have much of an effect.

From The Swamp:

Mukasey announced today that he's appointing Chicago federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to the Attorney General's advisory committee of U.S. attorneys.

Fitzgerald was on the committee from 2001 until 2005, but his appointment to it preceded his service as special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation....

Gonzales... did not re-appoint Fitzgerald to the advisory panel, which counsels the attorney general on law enforcement issues.

The President's questionable pocket veto of the 2008 Defense Authorization Act has left the future of some military bonuses uncertain. Until the bill - which provides funding for bonuses - becomes law, the bonuses for the Army and Air Force will not be guaranteed, although they are expected to be paid retroactively. (Army Times, Air Force Times)

Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman will have to stay in prison while he appeals his conviction for bribery and obstruction of justice, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller argued that Siegelman's conviction was not likely to be overturned. (Birmingham News)

The criminal inquiry into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes is pitting the FBI against the CIA. Agents from the FBI, which has been critical of the CIA's interrogation practices, are leading the investigation. (New York Times)

Despite Hans von Spakovsky's resignation from the Federal Elections Committee, the White House says that his nomination for the FEC is still active in the Senate and has not been withdrawn. (The Politico)

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You can say that the Bush Administration is a band of crooks. You can say that they're by and large incompetent. But you can't say they lack chutzpah.

And when it comes to chutzpah, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson clearly has got what it takes. But will he hold the line now that Congress is bringing its probing power to bear?

Late last month, Johnson denied California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. It was an act of pure, unmitigated, just-because-I-can chutzpah.

A little background first: California's rule would seek to cut emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016. Not surprisingly, that's a much steeper cut than the Bush Administration (and the auto industry) wants. Since other states are following California's lead, half of the American population (and car consumers) could be affected. The CEOs of Ford and Chrysler met with Dick Cheney late last year to have a chat about this.

But Johnson came through. Consider Johnson denied California its waiver (states have to get the EPA's OK before instituting environmental rules) despite:

-- the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs that he should grant the waiver

-- being told by the agency's legal staff that if he blocked the waiver, EPA would lose in court when California and environmentalists sued, but that if he granted the waiver, the move would stand in court no matter who challenged it

-- not having any real reason for denying the waiver

-- California has never had a waiver denied in the Clean Air Act's 37-year history

So far, in the two weeks since Johnson made his move, journalists haven't had much luck finding anyone who will say that his decision is supportable. The Washington Post quoted William Reilly, who was EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush as saying, "What I want to know from the [administration] is: What possible grounds would there possibly be to deny California this waiver?"

As for Johnson and the administration, their tactic seems to be to brazen their way through this.

The President has offered a "clear national solution" to the problem of auto greenhouse omissions, Johnson said. He had to block California's rules because it would lead to a "confusing patchwork of state rules."

And about that unanimous-staff-revolt thing? His spokeswoman says that Johnson "tremendously values the legal and technical expertise of his staff," but that "the Clean Air Act states that the authority to decide waiver requests rests with the administrator. He evaluated the waiver ... and obviously he made his decision." So there.

President Bush certainly thought Johnson made the right call. "Is it more effective to let each state make a decision as to how to proceed in curbing greenhouse gases? Or is it more effective to have a national strategy?" So much for state's rights.

But now comes the real test of Johnson's chutzpah reservoir. House sleuth Henry Waxman (D-CA) says that he'll investigate the decision. Senate environmental committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) will hold hearings. And yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requested that the EPA's inspector general launch an investigation.

And don't forget the courts. That lawsuit with the foreordained outcome has already been launched. Yesterday, California, 15 other states, and five environmental group filed suit.

How will Johnson hold up under Waxman's questioning? Stay tuned.

Out with the new, in with the old:

The Justice Department is replacing youth with experience, naming veteran prosecutor Frank Magill to take over for embattled Rachel Paulose as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.

Magill, 48, the first assistant U.S. attorney, will take over the position on Sunday, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said. Under federal law, he can remain acting U.S. attorney for up to 210 days, Carr said.

Now, will Magill invite Paulose to his coronation?

The CIA's initial defense for destroying the videotapes showing interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees was that they'd briefed members of Congress about their intention to do this long ago.

To which, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the former chair of the House intelligence committee responded: yes, we were told, and I told them not to do it. She said that she'd made that explicit in a letter to the CIA's general counsel in February of 2003, but that the letter was classified. She asked the CIA to declassify it.

Well, the CIA declassified the letter and today she released it (I've posted it below in full). Here's the relevant excerpt:

You discussed [in a briefing the previous week] the fact that there is videotape of Abu Zubaydah following his capture that will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry. I would urge the Agency to reconsider that plan. Even if the videotape does not constitute an official record that must be preserved under the law, the videotape would be the best proof that the written record is accurate, if such record is called into question in the future. The fact of destruction would reflect badly on the Agency.

The reply from the CIA's General Counsel Scott Muller later that month, also posted below, did not address this issue.

You can see a scan of Harman's letter here (pdf).

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It came about a year too late to do him any good, but the Justice Department has notified ex-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) that he's no longer under investigation for his ties to Jack Abramoff. Burns, you may remember, lost very narrowly to Jon Tester (D) last November, with Burns' Abramoff problem a huge issue in the election.

The feds had been investigating whether Burns helped Abramoff's tribal clients in exchange for tens of thousands in campaign contributions and other goodies. Abramoff himself said that he got whatever he wanted from Burns and that his staffers "pratically" used Abramoff's D.C. restaurant Signatures "as their cafeteria."

Abramoff continues to busily cooperate with investigators from prison. But whatever prosecutors came up with on Burns, they apparently didn't think it would stick in court -- bribery cases, of course, are notoriously hard to make.

Burns, who spent around $300,000 in campaign contributions on defense lawyers, fittingly got a lobbying gig after his forced retirement. And how does he feel about not being under investigation for the first time in more than two years? He says that he feels "so great that it's unbelievable." I'll bet he's "ready to go get knee-walking drunk."

Update: Don't forget that Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) and ex-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) are still very much on the hook.

The papers take a look at John Durham, the prosecutor Attorney General Michael Mukasey tapped to investigate whether anyone broke any laws by keeping secret and then destroying the CIA's torture tapes, and find that even if he doesn't have the same independence as Patrick Fitzgerald, he's made from the same stuff.

From The Los Angeles Times:

"Think of him as the second coming of Patrick Fitzgerald," said Jeffrey Meyer, a professor at Quinnipiac University law school in Hamden, Conn., who worked alongside Durham as a federal prosecutor for many years. "So far as I could tell, he does not have a political bone in his body. He is nothing but thorough and dogged in the way he pursues cases."

From The Washington Post:

Four friends said they could not recall him losing a case in more than 30 years as a prosecutor, almost all of it spent fighting organized crime and gang violence in Connecticut....

"He's Fitzgerald with a sense of humor," said Hugh O'Keefe, a Connecticut criminal defense lawyer who has known Durham for 20 years.

From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Hans von Spakovsky threw in the towel on New Years Eve, in an e-mail sent out to supporters....

"Today was my last official day as a Commissioner on the Federal Election Commission," he wrote. "The Senate officially adjourned today without acting on my nomination... I wanted to thank everyone for their support over the past two years while I was going through this confirmation battle. All of the telephone calls, emails and notes I received from people were great encouragement for me."

Von Spakovsky attached an endorsement by the Wall Street Journal, though he added that "it did not help in the end in convincing the Democrats to vote to confirm me."

I'll guess he'll just have to intimidate federal employees and work to disenfranchise minorities from outside the government now.