Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category
Banks no longer bother to disguise their control of the government. Eric Lipton and Ben Protess in the NY Times:
Bank lobbyists are not leaving it to lawmakers to draft legislation that softens financial regulations. Instead, the lobbyists are helping to write it themselves.
One bill that sailed through the House Financial Services Committee this month — over the objections of the Treasury Department — was essentially Citigroup’s, according to e-mails reviewed by The New York Times. The bill would exempt broad swathes of trades from new regulation.
In a sign of Wall Street’s resurgent influence in Washington, Citigroup’s recommendations were reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill. Two crucial paragraphs, prepared by Citigroup in conjunction with other Wall Street banks, were copied nearly word for word. (Lawmakers changed two words to make them plural.)
The lobbying campaign shows how, three years after Congress passed the most comprehensive overhaul of regulation since the Depression, Wall Street is finding Washington a friendlier place.
The cordial relations now include a growing number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate, whose support the banks need if they want to roll back parts of the 2010 financial overhaul, known as Dodd-Frank.
This legislative push is a second front, with Wall Street’s other battle being waged against regulators who are drafting detailed rules allowing them to enforce the law.
And as its lobbying campaign steps up, the financial industry has doubled its already considerable giving to political causes. The lawmakers who this month supported the bills championed by Wall Street received twice as much in contributions from financial institutions compared with those who opposed them, according to an analysis of campaign finance records performed by MapLight, a nonprofit group.
In recent weeks, Wall Street groups also held fund-raisers for lawmakers who co-sponsored the bills. At one dinner Wednesday night, corporate executives and lobbyists paid up to $2,500 to dine in a private room of a Greek restaurant just blocks from the Capitol with Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, a co-sponsor of the bill championed by Citigroup.
Industry officials acknowledged that they played a role in drafting the legislation, but argued that the practice was common in Washington. . .
Continue reading. Yes: “common in Washington”: that is the problem. It seems as though Congress has no concept of “conflict of interest”.
During WWII, the government pleaded with farmers to grow industrial hemp, but then we won and industrial hemp again became (apparently) a dangerous product that was illegal to grow—though perfectly legal to buy as imports. The DEA has stubbornly resisted efforts to grow hemp—which is not a drug, so it’s unclear to me how the DEA should be involved at all. (It’s as if the DEA opposed the growing of cotton or corn.)
Phillip Smith reports at Drug War Chronicles:
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) Monday introduced an amendment to the omnibus farm bill to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, the Huffington Post reported. The move picked up momentum the next day, when Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) said he would support, the Huffington Post reported separately.
Vote Hemp, a hemp industry group, has been urging supporters to lobby senators to add and support the amendment. There is an opening on the farm bill this year because it failed to pass last year.”For me, what’s important is that people see, particularly in our state, there’s someone buying it at Costco in Oregon,” Wyden told the Post. “I adopted what I think is a modest position, which is if you can buy it at a store in Oregon, our farmers ought to be able to make some money growing it.”
Wyden wasn’t alone. The bipartisan amendment is cosponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY).
On Tuesday, Sen. Leahy told members of the farm advocacy group Rural Vermont he would support the amendment, and a Leahy aide confirmed his support to the Post.
“We are optimistic that the hemp amendment to the farm bill will pass and be attached,” Tom Murphy, the national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp, told the Post. “We just received word from Rural Vermont that Sen. Patrick Leahy will support the amendment.”
This week’s moves come after McConnell tried and failed last week to get the amendment added to the farm bill. Now, momentum appears to be mounting.
Paul Starr explains in The American Prospect:
Compromise is often an unhappily revealing art. “Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes. In finding compromises with Republicans on the federal budget, Democrats need to remember not only who they are but who the voters depend on them to be.
From that standpoint, the start of the budget battle in early April did not go well. Acceding to Republican demands for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the president’s budget left his party open to a cynical but predictable response. Without the least acknowledgment of a contradiction, the chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, Representative Greg Walden, immediately went on television to denounce Barack Obama’s “shocking attack on seniors.”
We’ve seen it before. Many of the House Republicans who voted in 2008 for the bank bailouts called for by the Bush administration denounced the bailouts in the 2010 election as if they had nothing to do with them. In 2012, Paul Ryan and other Republicans campaigned against the $700 billion in Medicare cuts in “Obamacare” as if the Ryan budget adopted by House Republicans did not include the same cuts—and without acknowledging that the Affordable Care Act included compensating measures that improved seniors’ Medicare benefits.
The two major parties today don’t just have ideological differences; they don’t observe the same rules of public accountability. The Democrats have no choice but to accept responsibility; they hold the presidency, and they believe in making government work. The Republicans do not share that commitment, and they are now unrestrained by executive obligations or by moderates in their own ranks. So they put politics before governing and have made bad faith in negotiations standard practice.
Yet anticipating bad faith from the Republicans does not free Obama from the need to advance compromises. The GOP will likely control the House throughout the president’s term; Obama has to do business with people who cannot be trusted to own up to their side of a deal. He has to identify budgetary savings and make political concessions that nonetheless demonstrate fidelity to long-standing commitments and principles. . .
Andrew Rosenthal points out the direction the inquiry should take:
The American public, Greg Sargent pointed out this morning, does not find a presidential scandal in either the Benghazi talking points or the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of right-wing groups seeking a tax-exempt and disclosure-free status.
In a C.N.N. poll released over the weekend, 61 percent of Americans say President Obama’s comments about the I.R.S. investigation were mostly or completely true, and 55 percent say the I.R.S. acted on its own. On Benghazi, 50 percent believe that early statements about the attack reflect what the administration believed at the time, compared with 44 percent – 76 percent of them Republicans – who say officials intentionally misled the public.
But Republicans are clinging to the idea of scandal, especially Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee, who is desperately trying to find someone to blame for the murders of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Most recently, Mr. Issa subpoenaed Thomas Pickering, the former United Nations ambassador, who co-authored a review of the Benghazi attacks with Admiral Michael Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Issa’s committee should interview Mr. Pickering, and Mr. Issa is justified in demanding access to a classified version of the Pickering/Mullen report. But he wants to do it behind closed doors and Mr. Pickering wants to have his say in public. So Mr. Issa issued the subpoena, for a private deposition only.
It’s not clear why this all has to take place in private – other than the rather obvious notion that it could allow Republicans to leak Mr. Pickering’s answers selectively.
It is certainly odd that the Pickering-Mullen review team did not interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her deputies, but Mrs. Clinton and several other senior State Department officials have testified before Congress.
Mr. Issa could instead focus on the C.I.A.’s role in the Benghazi tragedy. . .
Paul Waldman at The American Prospect:
In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe. . .
Currently the US mostly defines DUI as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% or higher. What would be the effect of reducing that to 0.05%, the standard used in most of Europe? Fortunately we have data, so an informed decision is possible. Dylan Matthews reports in the Washington Post:
Time to close your tab: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants to reduce the amount of booze you have to drink to count as a “drunk driver.”
Currently, the threshold is set at a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, as a result of a transportation bill signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, which stated that states had to adopt the 0.08 threshold by 2004 or else have their highway funding revoked.
But in a new report, the NTSB argues that this threshold is too high, and that it should be reduced further to 0.05. For reference, the average woman weighing 165 pounds would have to consume three beers to top 0.05, four to top 0.08, and five to top 0.10 (change that to four, five and six for the average man weighing 195 pounds).
It’s unlikely that this change will happen any time soon. The NTSB first recommended lowering the threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 in 1982. Utah, which has a large Mormon teetotaling population, adopted the new standard the next year, but by the time the federal government adopted the standard in 2000, only 18 states and the District of Columbia had followed suit. Passing the federal standard took some political heavy lifting on Clinton’s part, and that was after decades of lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups for the new standard. So don’t expect the 0.05 standard to get by too easily.
But leaving political plausibility to the side, is the 0.05 standard a good idea? There’s some evidence to suggest that reducing the threshold for drunk driving can save lives:
The 0.08 switch worked
One way to evaluate that would be to see whether the national switch to the 0.08 standard made a difference in terms of traffic deaths and injuries. There was considerable research before the bill was passed predicting that it would. Perhaps the most notable study, a 1996 paper in the American Journal of Public Health by Boston University’s Ralph Hingson, Timothy Heeren and Michael Winter, compared states that had voluntarily adopted the 0.08 limit to nearby states that had not.They found that states that had adopted the limit experienced a 16 percent decline in the share of fatal car crashes that involved a fatally injured driver whose BAC was 0.08 or above, relative to states that hadn’t adopted the limit. They concluded that the lower standard would, if adopted nationally, probably prevent 500 to 600 fatal crashes a year. A 2000 study by the same authors found similar effects for states that had recently adopted the new standard, estimating that national adoption would save 400 to 500 lives a year (a lower number because more states were already on board).
A 2001 study by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration researchers investigating the 1997 implementation of the 0.08 standard in Illinois found similar results. They built a model to predict the share of fatalities where drivers had positive BACs, and compared its predictions to what actually happened in 1997, 1998 and 1999. They found that the new limit caused a sudden break with previous patterns: . . .
Continue reading. Of course, the last thing that Congress is concerned about is saving lives: that ranks extremely low in Congressional priorities. Plus most of Congress cannot follow a scientific argument.
Congress seems to be outraged (as am I) over the government’s actions against Associated Press, but Congress rejected the legislation that would have prevented that—and now Obama is sending that legislation back to Congress, since they’re so concerned about it. Charlie Savage writes in the NY Times:
The Obama administration sought on Wednesday to revive legislation that would provide greater protections to reporters from penalties for refusing to identify confidential sources, and that would enable journalists to ask a federal judge to quash subpoenas for their phone records, a White House official said.
The official said that President Obama’s Senate liaison, Ed Pagano, called Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who is a chief proponent of a so-called media shield law, on Wednesday morning and asked him to reintroduce a bill that he had pushed in 2009. Called the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan 15-to-4 vote in December 2009. But while it was awaiting a floor vote, a furor over leaking arose after WikiLeaks began publishing archives of secret government documents, and the bill never received a vote.
The new push comes as the Obama administration has come under fire from both parties amid the disclosure this week that the Justice Department, as part of a leak investigation, secretly used a subpoena earlier this year to obtain a broad swath of calling records involving Associated Press reporters and editors. . .
Ironic, eh? But I’m sure the GOP will calm down once this is pointed out. Jed Lewison writes at Daily Kos:
Darrell Issa is outraged that the Department of Justice secretly obtained phone records through a subpoena of the AP’s telecommunications provider. He’s right to condemn the action, but as nycsouthpaw points out, it’s worth remembering that Issa voted against legislation that would have protected the AP:
Issa was one of 21 House members who opposed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, a measure that would have forbidden federal investigators from compelling journalists to give evidence without first obtaining a court order. The bill included a section that specifically forbid subpoenaing journalists’ phone records from “communication service providers” to the same extent that the law protected the journalists themselves.
The legislation passed the House, but it was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate and opposed by the Bush Administration. Barack Obama, at the time a U.S. Senator, didn’t vote on the bill, but was a co-sponsor. So you have a situation where Issa and Senate Republicans opposed legislation that would have prevented a government action they now decry, and you have a president who supported the legislation but whose administration is now responsible for taking the actions his legislation was supposed to prevent.
Thus far, the president hasn’t addressed the DOJ’s actions. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to take a neutral posture, saying that the White House was unaware of the subpoena until the AP announced it yesterday and referring all questions to the DOJ.
Given the president’s support for the press shield legislation in the Senate, he’s at risk of being as hypocritical on this issue as Issa and most Senate Republicans—without having the added virtue of being right. But if he wasn’t involved in the decision to subpoena the records, he could help make up for the government’s overreach not only by saying it was wrong to subpoena copies of AP phone records, but also by harnessing the GOP’s new civil libertarian streak to push through the legislation that they killed just a few short years ago.
Ray McGovern writes at ConsortiumNews.com:
There have been nine congressional hearings on the Benghazi controversy – with more to come – but almost no one in Congress dares put the spotlight on the unfolding scandal surrounding the Guantanamo Bay prison where most of the remaining 166 inmates have opted to “escape” from indefinite detention via the only way open to them – starving themselves to death.
One exception to the congressional cowardice is Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, who sponsored a highly instructive panel discussion on the prison at Guantanamo last Friday. Why simply a “briefing,” rather than a formal House hearing? Simple. Not one of the majority Republicans who currently chair committees in the House and have the power to call hearings wants Americans to hear the details of this blight on the nation’s conscience.
To be completely fair, the reigning reluctance seems, actually, to be a bipartisan affair. Moran is one of the few Democrats possessed of a conscience and enough moral courage to let the American people know what is being done in their name. For other lawmakers, it is a mite too risky.Folksy folks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee which is supposed to exercise oversight of the lethal operations carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, make no bones about the dilemma they prefer to duck when it comes to letting detainees die at Guantanamo or letting the president blow up suspected terrorists via drone strikes.
Here’s Graham quoted in Esquire magazine last summer on why Congress has engaged in so little oversight of the lethal drone program: “Who wants to be the congressman or senator holding the hearing as to whether the president should be aggressively going after terrorists? Nobody. And that’s why Congress has been AWOL in this whole area.” The same thinking applies to showing any mercy for the people held at Guantanamo.
It seems to me that Guantanamo is a three-fold scandal: (1) the abomination of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment given those prisoners; (2) the reality that most of those remaining were cleared for release more than three years ago; and (3) the fact that Moran’s was the very first congressionally sponsored public “briefing” of its kind – more than 11 years late.
While there has been endless attention paid to how the Benghazi talking points were drafted for use on Sunday talk shows last September, the American people have been spared high-profile testimony about how 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners at Guantanamo were cleared for release more than three years ago following a year-long investigation of their cases by an interagency task force of officials at the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and Homeland Security.
How might Americans feel if they knew that most of these 86 are now on a prolonged hunger strike and that many are being force-fed against their will, a notoriously painful, degrading and even illegal practice. Two weeks ago, 40 additional military medical personnel were sent to Guantanamo to assist with the force-feedings.
The American Medical Association has condemned such force-feedings as a violation of “core ethical values of the medical profession.” The United Nations has condemned the practice as torture and a breach of international law.
Friday’s unusual “briefing” sprang from an initiative by a group of concerned citizens mostly from Moran’s district in northern Virginia. On April 30, Kristine Huskey led a small group of us to meet with Moran, one of the very few members of Congress to speak out against the obscenity called Guantanamo. We put our shoulders to the wheel (and enlisted the willing shoulders of many other pro-justice people) and brought about the briefing in nine days.
C-Span filmed the entire hour and a half. You will not be at all bored if you tune in. And that goes in spades if the lack of interest by the corporate media has left you wondering how it came about that America is fast losing its soul. You can find the video under the title, “Panel Holds Discussion on Guantanamo Detainees,” May 10, 10:00-11:30 in Rayburn B-354. Participants included: . .
The AP is beside itself with indignation that the DoJ got a bunch of their phone records—from a perfectly legal procedure using the Patriot Act. Oddly, they never had a problem with this sort of thing when it was happening to the public. I recall Jane Harman, when she was on the House Intelligence Committee, being furious that the Patriot Act was used to eavesdrop on her, although she had voted in favor the act—presuming, I imagine, that it would only be used on the common people, not on luminaries such as herself. I suppose some of the anger was because she was caught committing a crime.
Kevin Drum has a very good comment on this at Mother Jones:
The government has been obtaining phone records like this for over a decade now, and it’s been keeping their requests secret that entire time. Until now, the press has showed only sporadic interest in this. But not anymore. I expect media interest in terror-related pen register warrants to show a healthy spike this week.
That could be a good thing. It’s just too bad that it took monitoring of journalists to get journalists fired up about this.
Timothy also has a good column in the Washington Post:
On Monday the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department “secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.” But here’s what’s really scary: The Justice Department’s actions are likely perfectly legal.
U.S. law allows the government to engage in this type of surveillance—on media organizations or anyone else—without meaningful judicial oversight.The key here is a legal principle known as the “third party doctrine,” which says that users don’t have Fourth Amendment rights protecting information they voluntarily turn over to someone else. Courts have said that when you dial a phone number, you are voluntarily providing information to your phone company, which is then free to share it with the government.
This all dates back to a 1979 Supreme Court decision. Police had asked the phone company for information about the numbers dialed from a robbery suspect’s phone. The suspect objected, pointing to a famous 1967 ruling holding that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to record the audio of a phone call. He argued that the same principle ought to apply when the government records information about the numbers a suspect dials.
The Supreme Court rejected this argument. “We doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the court. He pointed out that telephone customers are used to seeing numbers they’ve dialed on their monthly telephone bill.
Blackmun’s reasoning may have turned on the fact that automatic dialing was a relatively new development in 1979. Previously, telephone users had to tell a human operator which number they wished to reach, making it plausible to regard the phone company as an active participant in the phone-dialing process, but a mere passive conduit in transmitting the phone call itself.
Technological progress has rendered this distinction increasingly dubious. For example, . . .
I just received this email:
On July 1st, the interest rate on new federal student loans is set to double from 3.4% to 6.8%. That rate is nine times higher than the rate at which the government loans money to the big banks.
That just doesn’t make sense. The federal government is profiting off loans to our young people while giving a far better deal to the same Wall Street banks that crashed our economy and destroyed millions of jobs.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act as my first bill in the Senate: To allow students to borrow money at the same rate as the biggest banks.
College students carry more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, more than all the credit card debt in the country.
That’s a crushing burden on our kids and a crushing burden on our economy. Today’s graduates aren’t just delaying buying a home and starting a family — they’re moving back home with mom and dad and struggling to create some economic security.
The big banks that crashed our economy receive loans from the federal government at a rate of only 0.75% — that’s right, three-quarters of ONE percent. If Congress doesn’t act by July 1, our students will pay nine times more than big banks. Our students are the engine of our economic future, and they deserve at least the same deal as Wall Street.
Students don’t get the same Too Big to Fail guarantee as the big banks. But even though some students can’t pay their loans, overall the government is making 36 cents on every dollar we put into the student loan program. Next year, student loans are expected to bring in $34 billion.
Why should the big banks get a nearly-free ride while people trying to get an education pay nine times more? It isn’t right.
Senator Elizabeth Warren
The editorial board of the NY Times asks the question in an editorial today:
It is time for President Obama to abandon his hopes of reaching a grand budget bargain with Republicans.
At every opportunity since they took over the House in 2011, Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in reaching a compromise with the White House. For two years, they held sham negotiations with Democrats that only dragged down the economy with cuts; this year, they are refusing even to sit down at the table.
Mr. Obama hasn’t given up inviting the Republicans to join him in making the hard choices of governing, but he has been rebuffed each time. This year, in hopes of getting some support for modest tax increases on the rich, he even proposed a reduction in the cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients. The events of the last few weeks should make it clear to him why that offer should be pulled from the table immediately. Consider:
- Shortly after Mr. Obama presented this idea to Republicans, more than a half-dozen of them began trashing it as too “draconian” and a “shocking attack on seniors.” For years, the party has demanded entitlement cuts, but the moment the president actually offered one, he was attacked. Then last Tuesday, Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, said that no grand bargain is possible because Democrats aren’t willing to make significant cuts to spending and entitlement programs. The Social Security cost-of-living change, he said, did not go far enough.
- Senate and House Republicans are refusing to meet with Democrats to negotiate over the budgets passed by each chamber. Four times in the last two weeks, Senate leaders have proposed beginning a conference committee to hash out a federal budget; four times they have been blocked by Republicans. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said they were afraid the committee might reach an agreement to raise both taxes on the rich and the debt ceiling, which are, of course, the Democrats’ stated goals. Knowing that their positions would be deeply unpopular among the public if their stubbornness were exposed in an open committee, Republicans would simply prefer not to talk at all.
- Instead of negotiation, Republicans cling to their strategy of extorting budget demands by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. On Thursday, the House passed a stunningly dangerous bill that would allow foreign and domestic bondholders to be paid if Republicans forced a government default, while cutting off all other government payments except Social Security benefits. The bill has no possibility of becoming law, but its passage was a deliberate thumb in the eye to Mr. Obama, business leaders and those who say the debt ceiling should not be used for political leverage.
Republican lawmakers have become reflexive in rejecting every extended hand from the administration, even if the ideas were ones that they themselves once welcomed. Under the circumstances, Mr. Obama would be best advised to stop making peace offerings. Only when the Republican Party feels public pressure to become a serious partner can the real work of governing begin.
Even anti-union workers enjoy the benefits that unions have won for all workers, such as the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week, a part of the FDR legacy. But all of that is under attack as corporations find they can now get government help in exploiting workers. Dave Johnson writes at TruthOut:
Republicans are trying to pass an “alternative” to overtime pay. This is really about taking away the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. Will weekends be next? What about an “alternative” to paying workers at all?
House Republicans are pushing a bill that takes away extra pay for overtime, substituting “comp” time instead. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is the law that brought us the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek. This law does not prohibit employers from requiring workers to work over 40 hours. Instead, it gives employers an incentive to instead pay extra or hire more people, and gives employees a premium if they do have to work longer. (Note that this is also the law that brought us a minimum wage and outlawed child labor.)
There is proof that overtime pay works: workers like domestic workers and agricultural workers – jobs not covered by the FLSA – are twice as likely to have to work more than 40 hours in a week. And even with this law, Americans already work more hours than in almost any other industrialized country.
The Bill – No Guarantees
The House will be voting on H.R. 1406, The Working Families Flexibility Act, which lets employers offer “comp time” instead of overtime pay. The problem is that employers will pressure workers to take comp time instead of overtime, which reduces paychecks and gets rid of the incentive to hire more people. Later, the employees will be pressured to not take that comp time, or will have to be “on call,” etcetera.
It is important to note that the law does not guarantee workers the right to actually use the comp time they get instead of extra pay. Employers can put it off forever. You can’t use this time when you want to, only when the employer decides it is okay.
This really is a flat-out pay take-away, can’t use it another day.
Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research drives this point home in her article “Working Families Flexibility Act: Not Good for Working Parents and Bad for the Economy,” on The Huffington Post: . . .
Interesting report by Andrea Peterson at ThinkProgress:
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) is having a busy week fighting for stronger consumer protections. First he introduced legislation that would stop companies from using private arbitration to escape facing judgment in courts, and yesterday he introduced H.R. 1913, the Application Privacy, Protection and Security (Apps) Act of 2013, a bill that could fix the gap between the privacy consumers expect from apps on their mobile devices and the experience they actually receive. Rep. Johnson explained the bill during a speech to the State of the Mobile Net conference:
The APPS Act would require that app developers give effective notice about data collection and obtain consent from consumers before collecting personal data.Trust in the mobile marketplace is crucial to its continued growth. Transparency is the cornerstone of this trust.
The APPS act would also require that developers securely maintain personal data. And it would give consumers a clear way to permanently delete their personal data once they stop using an app.
Smartphones are a regular feature of modern life, with 114 million Americans using them as of July 2012, but developers for mobile apps have struggled to keep pace with consumer privacy expectations. A February Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report showed that 57 percent of all app users “have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons” and less than one in three “feel they are in control of their personal information on their mobile devices.”
And there is an awful lot of personal information on mobile devices that many apps can access — including contact lists, browsing habits, and geographic location. One 2012 study discovered 19 percent of Apple iOS 5 apps accessed address books without user knowledge or consent and 41 percent tracked location. It also found more than 40 percent of them didn’t encrypt user data once it was collected, potentially leaving it vulnerable to hackers.
A number of consumer advocates have . . .
But the US is seized by irrationality, so I doubt the step will be taken. Adam James and Lexy Atmore report in ThinkProgress:
During the last four years, Congressional action on climate change has been minimal, at best. After the Senate thwarted the cornerstone of the climate change plan, a cap-and-trade bill, a horde of climate-deniers won seats in the 2010 Congressional elections. The government continues to subsidize fossil fuels for an amount larger than the GDP of one-fifth of the world’s countries.
Despite the disappointments of the last term, there are congressional members still willing to fight climate change. One of these members, Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52) is continuing this battle by introducing the Super Pollutant Emissions Reduction (SUPER) Act of 2013.
The SUPER Act reinvigorates the conversation about climate change by addressing “short-lived climate pollutants,” a potent group of gases referred to as SLCPs or “super pollutants.” While carbon dioxide (CO2) is the best-known greenhouse gas, it is certainly not the only one. On the contrary, nearly half of global warming is caused by super pollutants such as methane, tropospheric ozone, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon.
Super pollutants are far more potent than CO2, with between 25 and 4000 times more global warming potential over a 100-year period. Furthermore, these pollutants remain in the atmosphere for no more than 15 years. Some gases such as black carbon and tropospheric ozone last less than two weeks. CO2 has a much longer atmospheric lifetime. Quick action to reduce super pollutant emissions can have major short-term benefits, slowing down warming by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.
The SUPER Act would take immediate action by streamlining the enforcement of existing federal policies for reducing super pollutants and supporting similar policies, such as California’sextremely successful diesel truck regulations and recent attack on hydrofluorocarbons, at the state and local level.
While the scientific imperative to reduce super pollutant emissions is clear, the optimal policy for doing so is not. That’s why the SUPER Act would also create a task force to drive the policy discussion behind the SUPER Act. . .
On Thursday, Wrigley announced that it would be pulling its controversial new “Alert Energy” gum — each stick of which contains as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee — from the market out of “respect” for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the agencyinvestigates the public health risks associated with pumping caffeine into everyday foods and drink. With energy products and other potentially harmful foods high in sugar, salt, and fat increasingly under public scrutiny, it’s worth asking: why can’t the FDA do more to crack down on these additives? And why does it take so long to get food makers to comply with regulations when they do?
Answering that requires a brief foray into the history of the American food safety regimen. 1958 was a seminal year for food oversight, seeing the passage of the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the creation of the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) List. Under the Food Additives Amendment, “any substance intentionally added to food is a food additive and is subject to pre-market approval by FDA unless the use of the substance is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” So if a substance is on the GRAS exemption list, then food makers can use it to their heart’s content without proving its safety, unless specifically prevented from doing so by an FDA regulation.
The GRAS list contains over 700 items, many which have been there since 1958 — and taking an item off the GRAS list once it’s on is difficult. GRAS items are specifically defined as substances that are “generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of [their] intended use.” Consequently, revoking a substance’s GRAS designation requires considerable expert consensus that an item is not safe for its intended use.
One might ask how salts, sugars, trans fats, and caffeine don’t fit that bill considering widespread evidence that those substances increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, thereby harming public wellness and increasing U.S. health care costs. In fact, government watchdogs and medical groups such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have issued several calls for the FDA to crack down on those very ingredients.
But an outright ban on any of those substances (other than trans fats) is impossible — and undesirable — since the majority of food items require them in at least some amount. Rather, it’s excess consumption that makes the substances potentially dangerous. That’s where the FDA can step in by issuing regulatory rules that either set targets or impose reductions in harmful food content. But that’s also where they meet their greatest obstacle: the powerful food lobby.
“It’s corporate power,” said Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in an interview with ThinkProgress. “For something like salt, or partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), or sugar, there’s huge industries behind those substances. First there’s the manufacturers themselves, and then there’s the food companies that use their products. All those companies would be discomfited by an FDA ban or regulation, so they can then go to Congress and say, ‘Look at what the FDA is trying to do! It’s killing our business.’” Congress can then put pressure on the FDA by “cutting [its] appropriations or putting a rider in an FDA bill preventing it from imposing certain regulations,” according to Dr. Jacobson.
That sort of arm-twisting tends to work — even when an FDA action is simply advisory and lacks enforcement power. For instance, Dr. Jacobson explained to ThinkProgress that in the 1990s, “[t]he government came up with draft voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to young children. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association said its highest priority was to kill the voluntary guidelines –- and this wasn’t even a regulation, just guidelines!” Congress ended up siding with the grocery manufacturers over the children. “The public health becomes a side issue,” said Dr. Jacobson.
And even when the FDA succeeds in taking regulatory action, it can get held up for years — and even decades — by lawsuits and lobbying campaigns launched by Big Food companies, as well as . . .
I found it interesting that corporations fight even voluntary guidelines: they want no restrictions whatsoever, but to do as they please. And it’s pretty clear that public health and public safety count for nothing with corporations and Congress (in general).
Of course, the FDA is ineffectual for other reasons—such as falling under control of the industries it is supposed to regulate. Aviva Shen reports at ThinkProgress:
In a fiery decision on Friday, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman denied the Obama administration’s motion to delay an order to immediately allow over-the-counter access to emergency contraception to women of all ages. After Korman initially ordered in April that the so-called “morning-after pill” be available to all women and girls without a prescription, the FDA instead decided to lower the age limit to teens 15 and up rather than 17. However, those 15- and 16-year-olds will only have over-the-counter access to one brand of emergency contraception pill, Teva Pharmaceutical’s Plan B One-Step, thanks to what Korman called a “sweetheart arrangement” between the FDA and Teva.
Blasting the Obama administration’s argument as “an insult to the intelligence of women,” Korman attacked the FDA’s decision to lower the age restriction for Plan B rather than comply with his order to allow all women access to any brand of emergency contraception. The judge accused the administration of delaying his ruling so as to give Teva Pharmaceutical sole access to the market of 15- to 17-year olds without a prescription. Generic versions of Plan B, meanwhile, will stay behind the pharmacy counter for this age group.
Korman also noted that Teva will drive up the price of the pill now that it has a monopoly on young women in need:
While this proposal was a boon to Teva, it did little to eliminate the practical obstructions in obtaining emergency contraception to women of child-bearing age whether over or under age 15. On the contrary, Teva will use its privileged marketing status and exclusivity to increase the cost of the drug. The price of Plan B One-Step under the new marketing regime is expected to be $60, significantly more than the one- or two-pill generic version, and could conceivably go higher, if only to accommodate the more expensive packing, age-verification tags, and anti-theft technology that the new marketing arrangement would require.
As Teva profits from the Obama administration’s arbitrary age restriction, the burden on women seeking emergency contraception will only grow larger. Younger teens and undocumented women unable to prove their age with government-issued ID will still not have access, and may not be able to afford the new cost. As Korman points out, the Teva-FDA deal still requires Plan B to be sold over the counter at stores with on-site pharmacies, even though many women do not live near such facilities. The decision also cites a survey of 943 pharmacies in 5 cities, which found that only 4.7 percent stayed open 24 hours. Given the time-sensitive and often urgent need for emergency contraception, limiting the hours and locations where women can buy the drug could have serious consequences.
Moreover, there is no medical reason to limit access to the morning-after pill. Despite the Obama administration’s concern that it could be “dangerous” to young teens, an enormous body of research has demonstrated emergency contraception is safer than aspirin for women of all ages.
Obama: the continuing disappointment.
Many moons ago, when I was in college, my friend Ray offered to drive a professor’s locked trunk across the country to New York.
Ray was going there anyway, so what the heck.
Somewhere in Nebraska, a Highway Patrolman stopped him for speeding.
The trooper asked Ray if he had any drugs. This was in the early 1970s.
“No, Sir,” Ray told him.
“May I search your car?” the trooper asked.
Sure, Ray said. And the cop found a big chunk of hashish rolled up in Ray’s underwear.
“You lied to me,” the trooper said. “Where’s the pipe?”
“There is no pipe,” Ray said.
The cop searched again and found the pipe.
“You lied to me again,” the cop said. “What’s in the trunk?”
Ray said he didn’t know what was in the trunk, that he was driving it to New York for a professor.
The cop said: “You’ve lied to me twice. Why should I trust you again?”
And Ray told him: “Because this time, I give you my word.”
That sums up all there is to say about the 113th Congress. And the 112th. And the 111th.
Remember how Congress was going to straighten out the banks, so they couldn’t throw the country into Reverse overnight, ever again?
An interesting piece in the latest London Review of Books is subtitled “How the Big Banks Got Away With it.” University of Edinburgh professor Donald MacKenzie deals mostly with European banks, but the diagnosis and the illness is the same as we’re suffering here.
It’s that bankers continue to reward themselves for the same behavior that crashed the world economy more than five years ago. In fact, they get incentives to repeat it.
Take “return on equity.” Suppose . . .
Dean Baker points out in TruthOut a tactic used by Wall Street to suck up more money at the expense of the rest of us:
The bond-rating agency Moody’s made itself famous for giving subprime mortgage backed securities triple-A ratings at the peak of the housing bubble. This made it easy for investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to sell these securities all around the world. And it allowed the housing bubble to grow ever bigger and more dangerous. And we know where that has left us.
Well, Moody’s is back. They announced plans to change the way they treat pension obligations in assessing state and local government debt.
Instead of accepting projections of pension fund returns based on the assets they hold, Moody’s wants to use a risk-free discount rate to assess pension fund liabilities. This will make public pensions seem much worse funded than the current method.
While this might seem like a nerdy and technical point, it has very real consequences. If the Moody’s methodology is accepted as the basis for accounting by state and local governments then they will suddenly need large amounts of revenue to make their pensions properly funded. This will directly pit public sector workers, who are counting on the pensions they have earned, against school children, low-income families, and others who count on state supported services.
In other words, this is exactly the sort of politics that the Wall Street and the One Percent types love. No matter which side loses, they win. While public sector workers fight the people dependent on state and local services, they get to walk off with all the money.
Wall Street is expert at these sorts of accounting tricks; it is after all what they do for a living. And this is not the first time that they have played these sorts of games to advance their agenda.
The current crisis of the Postal Service, which is looking at massive layoffs and cutbacks in delivery, is largely the result of accounting gimmicks. In 2006 Congress passed a law requiring an unprecedented level of pre-funding for retiree health care benefits. The Postal Service is not only required to build up a massive level of prefunding, it also is using more pessimistic assumptions about cost growth than any known plan in the private sector.
This requirement is the basis for the horror stories of multi-billion losses that feature prominently in news stories about the Postal Service. . .
The GOP is also known (to me) as The Bad-Faith Party. Kevin Drum points out their current approach to the budget:
Today’s Washington Post story about the tepid pace of budget negotiations may seem like a snoozer at first glance, but it’s really pretty mind-boggling. Here’s a snippet:
That might seem like good news, but it is unraveling Republican plans to force a budget deal before Congress takes its August break….In the meantime, Republicans face a listless summer, with little appetite for compromise but no leverage to shape an agreement….“The debt limit is the backstop,” Ryan said before taking the stage at a debt summit organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington. “I’d like to go through regular order and get something done sooner rather than later. But we need to get a down payment on the debt. We need entitlement reform.”
….Democrats are urging Republicans to initiate talks well before the next deadline and at last resolve the long-standing dispute over whether to tame the debt solely by cutting spending, as Republicans demand, or also by raising taxes on the wealthy, as Obama insists….But senior Senate Republicans, including several who recently dined with Obama and huddled with administration officials, conceded that it may be tough to bring their colleagues to the table too far ahead of the debt-ceiling deadline….“We need to realize this debt ceiling is out there. It’s inevitable. It’s coming. And [the later deadline] should not relieve pressure,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. But “sometimes we don’t want to act until a gun is at our heads.”
So that’s that. Republicans are flatly refusing to even start budget negotiations until they can threaten default on the national debt if they don’t get their way. Apparently this is literally the only way they’re now willing to do business.
I should have something snappy to say about this, I suppose. But it’s still too early in the morning here in California. I’ve always said that Sacramento made Washington DC look like pikers in the government dysfunction department, but I think I’m getting ready to change my mind about that. As always, California is a bellwether for the nation.
Harry Reid points out the GOP tactic of demanding a win even if they lose the vote.
UPDATE: Another note on the hostage-taking before negotiations.