Friday, February 26, 2010

What is a girl worth?

An estimated 41 million girls are missing out from school around the world – almost half that number is in sub-Saharan Africa. Whenever large segments of any population, for whatever reason, are denied educational opportunities families, communities and sometimes nations are left at great an economic disadvantage. Denial of educational opportunities for girls for economic or cultural reasons is a prescription for poverty.

Jessica Shepherd writes in the Guardian the situation in eastern Ghana:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 12-year-old Abigail Appetey is forced to miss her classes at primary school to sell fried fish door-to-door in Apimsu, her farming village in eastern Ghana. She gets up at 5am to buy the fish three miles away.

The little she earns won't go on the exercise books she needs; her parents will spend it on her 20-year-old brother Joseph's education. Abigail wants to be a teacher, she says, but is always tired in class.

There are 41 million girls around the world who should be in primary school all week, but aren't, the Department for International Development says. At least 20 million of them are, like Abigail, in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Ghana, 91% of boys, but only 79% of girls finish primary school. By the time they complete junior high school – for 12- to 15-year-olds – 65% of boys and just 54% of girls are still in lessons, says the lobby group the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition.

Here in Asesewa – one of Ghana's poorest districts – Abigail's nearest junior high school has just five girls out of 20 pupils in its most senior class. The school improvement plan is torn, written in felt tip and peeling from a wall in a corridor. It is the middle of the dry season and temperatures can reach 31C, but the school's tap is empty and the toilets don't work. The most the school seems to have is a few exercise and textbooks that look as though they date back to the 1950s.

The average income for Asesewa's population of 90,000 is between £11 and £14 a month, according to the international charity Plan, which has a base here.

Almost 80% of inhabitants farm maize and the starchy cassava plant. The work is done with machetes or by hand. Most families have no running water or electricity in their homes and almost half are illiterate. Living in poverty like this, girls stand little chance of being spared the time – or the money – for school.

Ministers in the Ghanaian government abolished fees for primary education in 2005 and boast that they spend the equivalent of £6 in state funds on each primary pupil every year. But parents must pay for exercise books, school uniforms and exams.
It is these hidden costs – which can amount to more than £100 per child per year – that dissuade many from sending their girls to school, says Joseph Appiah, Plan's chief fieldworker in Asesewa.

Besides, the value of an educated girl is lower than that of an educated boy. "The feeling is that girls will marry and belong to another family; boys bring back what they make to their parents," Appiah says.

And, in these rural communities, girls are needed at home. From as young as seven they can be expected to prepare breakfast and lunch for their parents, take it to them in the fields and cook a hot dinner in the evenings. Many will also have to fetch water from several kilometres away and sell what they can to supplement their family's meagre income. That leaves little time for lessons. "Here, it is only when a girl has extra determination to make it in her education that she will," Appiah says.

And yet Ghana is prospering. The last five elections have been free and fair, making the country a darling of the donor community. The UK alone will give £250m this year to alleviate poverty here.

Economic growth has increased steadily for the last decade and the gross domestic product has almost doubled in that time. The discovery of 600m barrels of oil in 2007 has given the country a new profile on the world stage. The International Monetary Fund has called Ghana "one of Africa's frontier emerging markets".
Not that you would know it in Asesewa.
You can read the entire article here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cuban dissident dies following hunger strike in Cuban prison

Orlando Zapata Tamayo has died in a Cuban prison after an 86 day hunger strike protesting prison conditions. He was arrested in 2003 following a crack down by the government on dissident groups. He was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International soon after the arrest.

This from the Miami Herald:
A jailed Cuban dissident on a hunger strike for 86 days died Tuesday, his mother reported, the first time in nearly 40 years an island activist starved himself to death to protest government abuses.

``They have assassinated Orlando Zapata Tamayo. The death of my son has been a premediated murder'' Reina Luisa Tamayo told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview.

``The managed to do what they wanted. They ended the life of a fighter for human rights.''

It was the first time an opponent of the communist government died during a hunger strike since the 1972 death in prison of Pedro Luis Boitel, a poet and student leader who had fought against both the Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro dictatorships.

Zapata, 42 who had worked as a plumber and bricklayer, stopped eating solid foods Dec. 3 to protest what he described as repeated beatings by guards and other abuses at his prison in eastern Cuba.

He was arrested in 2003 during a government crackdown that sentenced 75 government critics to lengthy prison terms, and Amnesty International declared him a ``prisoner of conscience'' that year.

Initially charged with contempt, public disorder and ``disobedience'' and sentenced to three years, he was convicted of other acts of defiance while in prison and sentenced to a total of 36 years.
Amnesty International has called on the Cuban government for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Handicapped children are God’s punishment for abortion according to Virginia Delegate

Republican Delegate Robert G. Marshall believes the first born are dedicated to the Lord and if an abortion occurs the subsequent children will be punished.

According to the Washington Post:
"The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion who have handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the firstborn of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," Marshall said.

"In the Old Testament, the firstborn of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord," he added. "There's a special punishment Christians would suggest -- and with the knowledge that they have in faith, it's been verified by a study from Virginia Commonwealth University -- first abortions, of a first pregnancy, are much more damaging than later abortions."
The remarks were made at a press conference last week with twenty other people – mostly clergy – attacking public funding for Planned Parenthood. None of the clergy are reported to have objected to Marshall’s assessment of handicapped children as punishment from God. The study Marshall referred to suggests a higher risk of premature birth and low birth weight for children of mothers who previously had abortions.

Following outrage voiced by families of handicapped children and advocates for the disabled, Marshall is now trying to back off the remarks. In a statement issued on his website, Marshall claims he was misunderstood and says, "I have devoted a generation of work to defending disabled and unwanted children, and have always maintained that they are special blessings to their parents.”

Marshall, a former researcher for the American Life League, opposes not only abortion but all forms of birth control that may take effect after conception. He is currently serving his seventh term in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Does Senator Evan Bayh have the backbone to fight for reforms he says are needed?

Senator Evan Bayh had an op-ed in the New York Times this past week on why he decided not to run for a third term this year to the United States Senate. The decision took home state Democrats by surprise and may possibly jeopardize the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. He laments the rise of partisanship and cited a couple of structural problems in need of reform – campaign finance and the filibuster. Here are his thoughts on the filibuster:
…. the Senate should reform a practice increasingly abused by both parties, the filibuster. Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose — to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business.

Last fall, the Senate had to overcome two successive filibusters to pass a bill to provide millions of Americans with extended unemployment insurance. There was no opposition to the bill; it passed on a 98-0 vote. But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters.

Admittedly, I have participated in filibusters. If not abused, the filibuster can foster consensus-building. The minority has a right to voice legitimate concerns, but it must not employ this tactic to prevent progress on everything at a critical juncture for our country. We need to reduce the power of the minority to frustrate progress while still affording them some say.

Filibusters have proliferated because under current rules just one or two determined senators can stop the Senate from functioning. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to stop a vote; senators are rarely asked to pull all-nighters like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

For this reason, filibusters should require 35 senators to sign a public petition and make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory. Those who obstruct the Senate should pay a price in public notoriety and physical exhaustion. That would lead to a significant decline in frivolous filibusters.

Filibusters should also be limited to no more than one for any piece of legislation. Currently, the decision to begin debate on a bill can be filibustered, followed by another filibuster on each amendment, followed by yet another filibuster before a final vote. This leads to multiple legislative delays and effectively grinds the Senate to a halt.

What’s more, the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster should be reduced to 55 from 60. During my father’s era, filibusters were commonly used to block civil rights legislation and, in 1975, the requisite number of votes was reduced to 60 from 67. The challenges facing the country today are so substantial that further delay imperils the Republic and warrants another reduction in the supermajority requirement.
Evan Bayh’s father, Birch Bayh, is well remembered for his work in the Senate representing Indiana during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was the architect for Title IX (giving women equal opportunities in higher education) as well as the 25th (presidential succession) and 26th (lowering voting age to 18) amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He was a principle sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation to abolish the Electoral College. He was a leader in the fight against two Nixon appointees with segregationist pasts to the United States Supreme Court.

Evan Bayh has no such track record. It’s hard to think of any major legislation that has passed under the guidance of his leadership that has changed the lives of the American people for the better. As Ezra Klein points out Bayh has not been associated with any of the structural reform efforts during his tenure in the Senate that he elegantly addresses in the Times’ piece. But what’s important is that he finally sees the 500 pound gorilla in the room and is willing to speak out even at this late date. My preference is to do away with the undemocratic filibuster altogether but his proposed limitations on filibustering would be a step in the right direction. If the Senator from Indiana has the courage of his convictions he will spend the remainder of his time in the United States Senate fighting for the reforms he says are so needed. If he could do that then his legacy would still not be equal to his father’s but at least he could leave Washington having accomplished something.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Politics has a reality apart from perception that reporters often ignore

So much political reportage from American reporters is devoid of content that matters. After each Presidential debate every four years or the annual State of the Union Speech or some such public event many reporters for the nation’s newspapers and television news programs will pick apart a politician’s performance and the public’s perception of that performance but almost always as an afterthought (if at all) review the policies being proposed or opposed. It’s all about winners and losers in the game of perception but with nothing more than Monopoly money at stake. It’s as if nothing of consequence will impact upon the lives of Americans one way or the other.

George Packer looks at his profession:
David Broder had a devastatingly unremarkable assessment of Sarah Palin in the Post the other day. Her speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville “showed off a public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.” She used the televised occasion to “display the full repertoire she possesses.” Palin is not only “the most visible Republican in the land,” she has also “locked herself firmly in the populist embrace” and mastered “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message that has worked in campaigns past.” Broder’s conclusion: “The lady is good.”

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece by its lead political reporter, Adam Nagourney, about a Republican strategy session in Hawaii: “Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way, especially as the party establishment struggled to deal with the demands of the Tea Party movement.” The structure of the sentence, and of the article, puts the emphasis entirely on tactics and performance. This kind of prose goes down as easily and unnoticeably as a glass of sparkling water, with no aftertaste. Readers interested in politics drink quarts of it every day without gaining weight. And Broder and Nagourney are at the top of their game.

It would be strange if the Times’s coverage of the financial crisis, which has been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Richard Fuld’s handling of his P.R. problems while Lehman was going down. And it would be strange if the paper’s coverage of Afghanistan, which has also been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Hamid Karzai’s use of traditional Pashtun rhetoric in his effort to ride the wave of public anger at the Americans. Imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist:

“Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, ‘If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.’ Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzai’s own inner circle. At one point during the swearing-in ceremony, observers noted that Mohammad Hanif Atmar, his interior minister, seemed to ignore the greeting of Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief. The two have been rumored to be at odds ever since last year’s controversial election. A palace spokesman, speaking on background, denied that the incident had any significance. ‘The sun was in Hanif’s eyes—that’s it,’ the spokesman said.”

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt. It hasn’t always been true. Back in 1993, the late Michael Kelly, who was then a Times Washington reporter, wrote a brilliant Times Magazine piece called “David Gergen, Master of the Game.” It was about the culture of American politics, including those who write about it: “the story of how the idea of image became the faith in Washington.” According to Kelly (and to Gergen), it happened early in the Reagan Presidency. Kelly included a paragraph so damning that I still remember it almost two decades later: “A New York Times article in February reports that the President’s advisers are worried about ‘the perception thus wrought’ by his rocky beginning, and says the Administration is working ‘to refocus its image as a Government of broad, middle-class interests.’ A Times report in May finds ‘a perception that the President,’ who won office as a political centrist, ‘has come to look very much like the same old—liberal—thing.’ These bits of fatuousness are unexceptional in contemporary Washington journalism; they stand out in my mind only because I wrote them myself.”

It’s hard to imagine Kelly’s piece being published today—its scathing critique would seem quaint, if not mystifying. Anyone covering Washington, not excluding me, will sooner or later turn to a phrase like “refocus its image” or “a perception that the President has come to look” or “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message,” because they come so easily, and because they make it unnecessary to say anything substantial, which means thinking hard and perhaps suffering the consequences. Still, as an exercise in accountability, political journalists should ask themselves from time to time: Would I write this about a war, or a depression? In the same vein, a government official once told me that the best way to cover Washington is as a foreign capital—as Baghdad, or Kabul.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Iran: The need to focus public discourse less on hopes for regime change and war, and more on how to make a negotiations strategy work

The opposition to the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran had hoped to rally their forces on February 11th – the 31st anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah. However, the armed guardians of the status quo clashed continually with Green movement demonstrators throughout the day denying them any opportunity to gather in significant numbers. The questions is, “Now what?”

Marc Lynch has this assessment of the situation:
It isn't easy to be the pessimist on Iran's Green Movement. Everyone wants to support the brave protestors and most everyone hopes to see them prevail over an increasingly thuggish regime. I do. But over the last few weeks, Washington DC seemed to have talked itself into something more -- a belief that Iranian regime change was actually nigh, and that such regime change from below was actually more likely and easier than a negotiated deal on the nuclear program. I've been skeptical in public and private...I've been watching Arab regimes survive in the face of popular dissatisfaction for decades, and have seen all too clearly that while Middle Eastern regimes aren't good at much, they're pretty darned good at staying in power. Still, over the last few weeks I've read countless articles, and been told conspiratorially by many Iran-watchers, that February 11 would be the breakthrough for the Green Movement. And now it's pretty clear that it wasn't. So what now?

Today's fizzle shouldn't have surprised anyone, even if many hoped for more. We shouldn't read too much into it, even if expectations had been raised. But the prospects for regime change have seemed to me less likely over time rather than more likely. During those chaotic first days after the "election" fiasco, there may have been the chance for a massive cascade to change things before the regime could rally itself. But it survived that (and would have, probably even more easily, has the Obama administration publicly taken a position). Since then, it has systematically repressed and divided the opposition, harrassed its leadership and members, and taken steps to shore up its instruments of control. The internet may or may not have played a decisive role in fueling the Green Movement, but either way the regime is now prepared to shut it down when necessary. The Shi'a tradition of commemorations and major national anniversaries do offer focal points for organization and mobilization, but it also tells the regime exactly where and when to expect protest activity. In short, I fully believe that the Iranian regime is more unpopular and less legitimate than ever before -- but just don't see it as especially vulnerable at the moment.

That's why I think the Obama team has been absolutely right to refrain from "banking on a protest movement which may sputter out or be crushed." It lacks, as one might say, "the satisfying purity of indignation." But it's the right call. We need to accept the limits of American influence over events in Iran. That doesn't mean that the U.S. shouldn't push for human rights and criticize repression -- I think that the administration should support public freedoms in Iran just as it should across the Arab world (and beyond). But it shouldn't count on a regime change from below which will largely be shaped by internal Iranian dynamics and not by American posturing.

What are the alternatives? Some seem to want a grand Presidential speech declaring solidarity with the Green Movement. These are often the same people who used to mock Obama's faith in his own rhetoric, but no matter -- people change, as do circumstances. Would such a speech help? I doubt it. This would actually be a domestically popular move...but would have real costs which Obama is wise to avoid. It may embolden the protestors, but they are already plenty motivated on their own. It would be making an implicit promise that the U.S. would protect them if they tried to do more -- a promise which almost certainly could not be redeemed. It would also make it all the easier for the regime to demonize and discredit the opposition as American pawns and puppets. I just don't see much hope that indigenous regime change, with or without overt U.S. encouragement, is going to be the magic bullet... but think it's marginally more likely if the U.S. doesn't insert itself in the middle and make itself the issue.

The growing drumbeat for war remains as irresponsible and poorly reasoned as ever. I find it reassuring that Obama's advisers describe the main goal of their strategy as avoiding war. I would be thrilled if I could never again be forced to listen to someone explain how war is the only logical choice, the costs won't be that high and the gains enormous. But then I'd have to get out of the foreign policy business, because advocates of war always make such arguments. An American or Israeli military strike would be risky, would have massive human costs, would be devastating for the rest of Obama's grand strategy, would likely lead to dramatic turn for the worse in Iraq, would have significant (if temporary) effects on the global economy, and would likely strengthen the regime rather than weaken it. It should not be considered a serious policy option.

Nor do I think that there's a grand bargain to be had at the moment. There might have been in the opening months of Obama's Presidency, had he made different choices and approached the problem with a fresher conceptual framework. There were a lot of good ideas out there early on, about putting Iran into a wider regional framework and breaking down the rigid binary oppositions of the Bush era. We'll never know whether the electoral crisis killed the chances for momentum or whether the strategy of simultaneously engaging and preparing for sanctions when engagement failed was doomed from the start. But there's no going back, and the die is cast.

So that leaves us with negotiations and sanctions... which don't seem to have great prospects right now, but at least avoid the worst outcomes of the other approaches. The sanctions would likely work better if they remain carefully targeted and tightly linked to negotiating strategy (i.e. the White House approach) rather than being primarily expressive and driven by domestic politics (i.e. the Senate's version). Engagement should be combined with a consistent message of U.S. support for public freedoms and human rights, which could raise the international and domestic costs of the regime's repression without tarnishing the opposition movement by association. The overall focus should be on ways to build the conditions under which a negotiation strategy can work -- no easy task, but the best option available. In general, we'd all do better if we could focus public discourse less on hopes for regime change and war, and more on the less sexy but more helpful question of how to make a negotiations strategy work.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The American electoral system is sorely in need of reform

“Democracy” is one of the most prized concepts of American. The constant expansion of voting and other legal rights for Americans has been a long struggle. Yet it seems too many Americans forget those struggles. Too many people seem to sink to the patriotic boosterism that democratic rule, for Americans at least, is somehow inevitable. There danger here is complacency that only benefits the status quo.

Every election we browbeat our fellow citizens with the mantra that every vote counts. The reality is that’s not true. Gerrymandered congressional districts and the Presidential Electoral College, to cite just two examples, limit true competition to only certain sections of the country and the impact on government is not what one should expect from a country that calls itself democratic. Citizens become cynical and lose faith in the very system of democratic governance they supposedly cherish. An unresponsive government and cynical citizenry means that it is only a matter of time, if we have not reached that point already, that the whole system becomes a fa├žade with all of us simply going through the motions of democratic activity.

The entire electoral system is in need of reform. Jonathan Turley has some suggestions to start cleaning up the process in today’s L.A. Times:
For decades, political reform in the United States has largely meant campaign finance reform. It is a focus the political mainstream prefers, despite the fact that it is akin to addressing an engine with a design defect by regulating the fuel.

Many of our current problems are either caused or magnified by the stranglehold the two parties have on our political system. Democrats and Republicans, despite their uniformly low popularity with voters, continue to exercise a virtual monopoly, and they have no intention of relinquishing control. The result is that "change" is often limited to one party handing power over to the other party. Like Henry Ford's customers, who were promised any color car so long as it was black, voters are effectively allowed to pick any candidate they want, so long as he or she is a Democrat or Republican.

Both parties (and the media) reinforce this pathetic notion by continually emphasizing the blue state/red state divide. The fact is that the placement of members on the blue or red team is often arbitrary, with neither side showing consistent principles or values.

The Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down restrictions on corporate campaign giving has prompted some members of Congress to call for a constitutional amendment to reinstate the restrictions. But that would merely return us to the same status (and corrupted process) of a month ago.

We can reform our flawed system, but we have to think more broadly about the current political failure. Here are a few ideas for change that would matter:

Remove barriers to third parties. Independent and third-party candidates currently face an array of barriers, including registration rules and petition requirements, that should be removed. Moreover, we should require a federally funded electronic forum for qualified federal candidates to post their positions and material for voters. And in races for national office, all candidates on the ballot in the general election should submit to a minimum of three (for Congress) or five (for the presidency) debates that would be funded and made publicly available by the government.

End the practice of gerrymandering. We need a constitutional amendment requiring uniformity in districts to end gerrymandering, in which politicians distort the shape of districts to link pockets of Democratic or Republican voters. Districts should have geographic continuity, and should be established by a standard formula applied by an independent federal agency.

Change the primary system. The principal reason incumbents are returned to power is that voters have little choice in the general election. Incumbents tend to control their primaries, and in many districts electing the candidate of the opposing party is not an option. Under one alternative system that could be mandated in a constitutional amendment for all states, the two top vote-getters would go into the general election regardless of their party. If both of the top candidates are Republican or Democratic, so be it. All primaries would be open to allow voters to cast their ballots for any candidate appearing in the primary.

Abolish the electoral college. The college's current role in our system is uniformly negative and dysfunctional. It allows someone to be elected president even if his or her opponent gets more popular votes, as happened with George W. Bush in the 2000 election. This leads to serious questions of legitimacy. More important, it helps the two parties control entire states, because in states that are solidly red or blue, the opposing parties and candidates rarely invest much time or money campaigning given that they are clearly not going to get the electoral votes in the end. If there were direct voting for presidents, candidates would have good reason to campaign hard to grab pockets of, say, Democrats in Salt Lake City or Republicans in downstate New York.

Require a majority for presidents to be elected. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, there should be a runoff of the two top vote-getters -- as is the custom in most other nations. This would tend to force candidates to reach out to third parties and break up monopoly control of the two parties.

It is unlikely that members of Congress would implement such sweeping changes. But Article V of the Constitution allows citizens to circumvent Congress and call for their own convention "on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states." To be successful, a convention would have to be limited to addressing political reforms and not get sidetracked by divisive issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion. Individual states could also lead the way in enacting some of these reforms, such as requiring electoral votes to be divided among candidates according to the popular vote.

The current anger and outcry will mean nothing unless we can harness and channel it toward serious reform. Simply seeking a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform would do little to truly reform the system. Though it may require a third party to seek such changes, it can be done. We have to accept that the leaders of both parties are unlikely to solve this problem. They are much of the problem. The framers gave us the tools to achieve real change in our system.

Friday, February 05, 2010

U.S. Senate action on nominees blocked because of a Senator’s pet pork projects

The distinguished Republican Senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, has put a blanket hold on all of President Obama’s nominations before the United States Senate. This affects approximately 70 nominations and their respective agencies. The reason for Shelby’s unprecedented holds, according to Evan McMorris-Santoro at TPMDC, is two of Shelby’s pet projects causing the taxpayers billions of dollars are not getting the attention he wants them to receive:
… Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else:

- A $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers. From CongressDaily: "Northrop/EADS team would build the planes in Mobile, Ala., but has threatened to pull out of the competition unless the Air Force makes changes to a draft request for proposals." Federal Times offers more details on the tanker deal, and also confirms its connection to the hold.

- An improvised explosive device testing lab for the FBI. From CongressDaily: "[Shelby] is frustrated that the Obama administration won't build" the center, which Shelby earmarked $45 million for in 2008. The center is due to be based "at the Army's Redstone Arsenal."
So what exactly is a “hold” and how does Shelby get away with this? Ezra Klein provides an explanation:
The first thing to understand is that there's no such procedural move as a "hold." It's not something senators have in their special senatorial utility belts. Instead, a "hold" is shorthand for a promise to obstruct all further consideration of a particular piece of Senate business.

The best explanation of how this works came from David Waldman, and I encourage you to read it in full. But here's the short version: The Senate generally uses unanimous consent agreements to set the rules for a bill or a nomination. A hold, in its simplest form, is a promise to object to unanimous consent.

Okay, then what?

The action in question can still come to the floor. But all bets are off. In practice, this means a filibuster of some sort is on. Let's say that Shelby doesn't have 40 other Republicans lined up to stop all Senate business unless Alabama gets its pork. In theory, that means Harry Reid can just call a cloture vote and break his filibuster. Problem solved, right?

Sort of. People think of the filibuster in terms of defeating a bill. But they don't think about the power it has to keep the Senate from doing anything else. But that's the power the hold uses. To break a filibuster, the majority leader has to file for cloture. Then there's a two-day waiting period before a vote. Then there's a 30-hour post-vote debate period. And voting on one bill might require breaking multiple filibusters, because the motion to proceed to debate can be filibustered and the amendments can be filibustered and the motion to vote can be filibustered and each filibuster requires the same lengthy workaround. Even if you can crush every one of these filibusters without breaking a sweat, you've still just seen a whole week -- or maybe much more -- of the Senate's time chewed up.

That's why holds are effective on bills and nominations that people don't care about: The majority doesn't want to waste that much time breaking the obstruction of the minority. This isn't health-care reform, after all. It's the nomination of Sandford Blitz to be federal co-chairman of the Northern Border Regional Commission. Is breaking a hold on Sandford Blitz really a good reason to delay a jobs bill for a week?

But Shelby has likely overplayed his hand. The reason holds work is that they're small enough, and rare enough, that they never rise to the level of something the majority can't live with. Shelby, in putting a hold on all pending nominations, just made holds very big indeed. And he did it for the most pathetic and parochial of reasons: pork for his state....
This is one more example of the downward spiral our undemocratic and dysfunctional U.S. Senate. It would be funny if it did not impact so negatively on the people of this country facing very serious national and global challenges.