Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category
Corruption is when a person uses his official powers for private gain—for example, if Dick Cheney as Vice President had caused no-bid cost-plus contracts to be given to companies (such as Halliburton and KBR), that would be corruption. John Dunbar at the Center for Public Integrity points out one example:
A watchdog group has called for the investigation of the actions of an auto-dealing congressman who proposed an amendment that would exempt his industry from a safety requirement.
The amendment, which passed the House of Representatives, was offered just before midnight on Nov. 11. It allows automobile dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls. Rental car companies, meanwhile, don’t get the same treatment under the proposed law.
It was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, a self-described “second-generation auto dealer.”
The Campaign Legal Center in a letter sent Monday urged the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics to review Williams’ actions and also recommended changes to clarify House rules concerning recusal and conflicts of interest by members.
The request was prompted by a Center for Public Integrity report posted last week. The story was also posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Texas Tribune.
“The specific actions of Rep. Williams must be reviewed for compliance with current rules, but even if he did clear his amendment with the Ethics Committee, his actions are a prime example of why the current rules are both too weak and in need of further clarification,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director in a press release.
An email to Williams’ press aide was not immediately returned.
The rental car provision in the legislation, which is also in the Senate bill, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.
Williams’ amendment would make the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision exists in the Senate bill.
Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.
“Vehicles would be grounded for weeks or months for such minor compliance matters as an airbag warning sticker that might peel off the sun visor or an incorrect phone number printed in the owner’s manual,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California didn’t agree with that reasoning, however.
“This is ridiculous. NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) does not issue frivolous recalls,” she said. “All safety recalls pose serious safety risks and should be fixed as soon as possible.” . . .
Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo report in the NY Times:
A Senate security officer stepped out of the December chill last year and delivered envelopes marked “Top Secret” to the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the State Department and the Justice Department. Inside each packet was a disc containing a 6,700-page classified report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and a letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein, urging officials to read the report to ensure that the lessons were not lost to time.
Today, those discs sit untouched in vaults across Washington, still in their original envelopes. The F.B.I. has not retrieved a copy held for it in the Justice Department’s safe. State Department officials, who locked up their copy and marked it “Congressional Record — Do Not Open, Do Not Access” as soon as it arrived, have not read it either.
Nearly a year after the Senate released a declassified 500-page summary of the report, the fate of the entire document remains in limbo, the subject of battles in the courts and in Congress. Until those disputes are resolved, the Justice Department has prohibited officials from the government agencies that possess it from even opening the report, effectively keeping the people in charge of America’s counterterrorism future from reading about its past. There is also the possibility that the documents could remain locked in a Senate vault for good.
In a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last week, Ms. Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the Justice Department was preventing the government from “learning from the mistakes of the past to ensure that they are not repeated.”
Although Ms. Feinstein is eager to see the document circulated, the Senate is now under Republican control. Her successor as head of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, has demanded that the Obama administration return every copy of the report. Mr. Burr has declared the report to be nothing more than “a footnote in history.”
It was always clear that the full report would remain shielded from public view for years, if not decades. But Mr. Burr’s demand, which means that even officials with top security clearances might never read it, has reminded some officials of the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Ark of the Covenant is put into a wooden crate alongside thousands of others in a government warehouse of secrets.
The report tells the story of how, in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the C.I.A. began capturing people and interrogating them in secret prisons beyond the reach of the American judicial and military legal systems. The report’s central conclusion is that the spy agency’s interrogation methods — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other kinds of torture — were far more brutal and far less effective than the C.I.A. acknowledged to policy makers, Congress and the public.
For now, it is the most comprehensive chronicle of one of the most controversial counterterrorism programs after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the C.I.A. for access to the document, and at this point the case hinges on who owns it. Senate documents are exempt from public records laws, but executive branch records are not. In May, a federal judge ruled that even though Ms. Feinstein distributed the report to the executive branch, the document still belongs to Congress. That decision is under appeal, with court papers due this month.
Justice Department officials defend their stance, saying that handling the document at all could influence the outcome of the lawsuit. They said that a State Department official who opened the report, read it and summarized it could lead a judge to determine that the document was an executive branch record, altering the lawsuit’s outcome. The Justice Department has also promised not to return the records to Mr. Burr until a judge settles the matter.
“It’s quite bizarre, and I cannot think of a precedent,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. He said there are any number of classified Senate documents that are shared with intelligence agencies and remain as congressional records, even if they are read by members of the executive branch.
The findings of the report on the secret prisons remain the subject of fierce debate. A group of former senior C.I.A. officers published a book in September challenging its conclusions and methodology, and Senate Republicans have derided the investigation as shoddy and partisan. . .
It’s pretty clear that what happened is something the American public deserves to know, and the intensity of resistance to revealing what happened shows that it must have pretty bad.
Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post:
House Republican leaders this month did something that should outrage Americans of all parties and creeds: They declared that the people’s representatives will be working only two days a week next year.
The House will be in session just 111 days in 2016. This means the chamber will be closed more weekdays (150) than open, and many of the 111 are partial days. That’s upward of 30 weeks of paid vacation for all 435 members of the House. Is it any wonder the House is not doing what the people want?
Worse, American taxpayers are subsidizing members of Congress so that they can take more time off. Lawmakers have awarded themselves essentially unlimited travel budgets so they can spend more time at home.
It began with good intentions years ago: Members of Congress, out of a desire to be in touch with their constituents, made sure they could travel home to their districts as often as they wished. But this has contributed to a culture in which lawmakers fly to Washington Tuesday morning and fly out Thursday evening when in session (and perhaps make a quick trip home Wednesday night for the odd Rotary speech).
And how has being closer to their constituents worked out for them? Job approval of Congress stands at 13 percent in polls, near historic lows.
Lawmakers are spending too much time at home and not enough solving problems in Washington — and taxpayers are enabling lawmakers to blow off work rather than toil the five-day workweek that other U.S. workers do.
A week ago, I wrote that new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could solve much of the dysfunction in Washington by moving his family here, encouraging others to do the same and extending the congressional workweek to the standard five days. This would force lawmakers to get to know each other as human beings rather than partisan adversaries, and the result would be a more cooperative, functional legislature.
After reading that, lobbyist Vin Weber, a congressman from Minnesota in the 1980s and 1990s and a member of Republican leadership, suggested another measure: curtail the unlimited congressional travel allowances. This would encourage collegiality in Congress while also getting taxpayers out of financing what amounts to an incumbent protection racket.
“We’re subsidizing their campaigns,” he said. “The impact is these guys spend no time with each other and less quality time doing their jobs, and it contributes enormously to the dysfunction of the Capitol.”
Weber recalled that when he was in Congress, some lawmakers would drive to Washington in January and drive back to their districts in August, when Congress recessed.
In a statement justifying the two-day-average workweek, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argued: “This calendar ensures that ‘the People’s House’ always remains in-touch with those back home. Discussing ideas and concerns is a critical function of a responsive, representative democracy, and for this reason, our schedule will continue to provide members considerable time for constituent services in their districts each month.”
Nice try. But what we have now is not responsive democracy but reactive democracy, in which lawmakers answer to parochial and shortsighted views — generally those expressed by the last wealthy donor to buttonhole them — rather than thinking about the national interest or working with colleagues to build a consensus.
“It’s a great irony, really, that by every measurement it looks as if Congress is more out of touch with constituents than ever before,” Weber said, “and yet they’ve been back with their constituents more than they’ve ever been.”
And we pay for this new parochialism in many ways: free parking spaces for lawmakers at Reagan National Airport, discounted government rates for lawmakers, the privilege of booking themselves on multiple flights while regular fliers get bumped. Powerful lawmakers push airlines to schedule convenient flights to their home states and districts; one has been heard to boast about “my plane” on his flights to and from Washington. . .
High time. (Forgive me.) Report here in Drug War Chronicles.
Christopher Ingraham has a very interesting article in the Washington Post:
Political polarization is on the rise, and with it come lots of clever new ways to visualize that polarization. I’ve even taken a crack at it myself. A group of researchers recently gave it another go in a paper published in PLOS One, and while it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, it’s nonetheless one of the more effective visualizations of rising partisanship that I’ve seen. Take a gander.
You’ll see that they’ve created network diagrams for each House of Representatives from 1949 to 2011. They’ve drawn dots for each representative, and lines connecting pairs of representatives who vote together a given number of times. Finally, the dots for each representative are placed according to how frequently the Representatives vote together overall.
What we’re left with is a picture of political mitosis. Similar voting between Democrats and Republicans was fairly common up through the 1980s. But starting in the 1990s the parties began pulling apart from each other, like a single cell dividing into two.
Not only that, but within parties Representatives are voting more similarly too — that’s illustrated with the dots in each party’s cluster becoming more tightly packed together over time. Starting in the 2000s, there are hardly any links between the parties at all.
Again: this is nothing we don’t know. In fact, historically our current era of polarization may just be a return to historic norms. And while this visualization is effective at showing the parties peel away from each other, it misses some other nuances about polarization — for instance, that current trends are largely driven by Republicans moving away from the center.
The PLOS paper is worth looking at: “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives.” The abstract:
It is widely reported that partisanship in the United States Congress is at an historic high. Given that individuals are persuaded to follow party lines while having the opportunity and incentives to collaborate with members of the opposite party, our goal is to measure the extent to which legislators tend to form ideological relationships with members of the opposite party. We quantify the level of cooperation, or lack thereof, between Democrat and Republican Party members in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949–2012. We define a network of over 5 million pairs of representatives, and compare the mutual agreement rates on legislative decisions between two distinct types of pairs: those from the same party and those formed of members from different parties. We find that despite short-term fluctuations, partisanship or non-cooperation in the U.S. Congress has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years with no sign of abating or reversing. Yet, a group of representatives continue to cooperate across party lines despite growing partisanship.
David Roberts reports in Vox:
Benghazi committee spent 11 hours grilling Hillary Clinton on a bizarre farrago of issues, many of which bore only tangential connection to the Benghazi attack.
Over the past few weeks, the political narrative seems to have shifted from “Clinton in trouble” to “congressional witch hunt seeks to take down Clinton.” Between McCarthy’s accidental truth telling, an ex-staffer confirming the worst reports about the committee, and another House Republican conceding the obvious, it has become clear that the Benghazi committee is a thoroughly partisan political endeavor. Opinion has turned, but Republicans are trapped.
The thing is: The Benghazi committee is not even the worst committee in the House. I’d argue that the House science committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-TX), deserves that superlative for its open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation’s leading scientists and scientific institutions.
The science committee’s modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee’s — sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage — but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.
In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered. (There were half a dozen probes into Benghazi before this one.) In both cases, the chair has drifted from inquiry to inquisition. But with Benghazi, the only threat is to the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who has the resources to defend herself. With the science committee, it is working scientists being intimidated, who often do not have the resources to defend themselves, and the threat is to the integrity of the scientific process in the US. It won’t take much for scientists to get the message that research into politically contested topics is more hassle than it’s worth.
This year, Smith was one of the committee chairs granted sweeping new subpoena powers by his fellow House Republicans, what one staffer called “exporting the Issa model.” No longer is the chair required to consult with the ranking member before launching investigations or issuing subpoenas. A spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “This change will inevitably [lead] to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship.”
That turned out to be pretty prescient, at least in the case of the science committee. No chair has taken to his new role with as much enthusiasm as Smith. Here are just three of his recent exploits.
Hassling a scientist for unwelcome results
In June, a scientist named Thomas Karl, along with colleagues, published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science called “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.” It cast doubt on the global warming “pause” that has become the latest cause célèbre for climate change, er, doubters.
That did not sit well with Smith, who is a doubter himself, like many of the Republicans on his committee and more than half of all House Republicans. And it was the subject of much heated attack in the denial-o-sphere.
So Smith has gone after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Karl works as the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). For a play-by-play, I recommend this scorching letter to Smith from committee ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).
In it, she notes that Smith made three written requests for information about Karl’s study, all of which NOAA responded to in writing and in personal briefings. “Moreover,” she writes, “NOAA attempted to explain certain aspects of the methodology about which the Majority was apparently confused.” (Imagine how that meeting went.)
Among Smith’s repeated demands: access to the data and methods behind NOAA’s work on climate. Except, as NOAA and Democratic members of the committee kept trying to explain, those data and methods are posted on the internet. Anyone can access them. Yet Republicans kept demanding them.
Unsatisfied with the total cooperation and untrammeled access his committee received, Smith issued a subpoena:
On October 13, the committee subpoenaed nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including “all documents and communications” related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate.
“All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a treasure trove of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.
NOAA was given two weeks to comply.
(Coincidentally, the very following day, longtime climate skeptic blogger Bob Tisdale published a long post calling into question the very adjustments to temperature data that were mentioned in Smith’s subpoena.)
To be clear, Smith has not alleged any corruption, wrongdoing, or even bad science. He hasn’t alleged anything. Nor has he offered any justification for why he needs access to NOAA internal communications. The new rules mean that he no longer has to explain or justify himself to anyone. He’s just hoping to find something he can use.
Here’s the most pointed part of Johnson’s letter:
The baseless conflict you have created by issuing the October 13 subpoena is representative of a disturbing pattern in your use of Congressional power since your Chairmanship began. In the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54 year history of the Committee. That prior Committee history is filled with extensive legitimate oversight concerning consequential events — oftentimes quite literally matters of life and death. Yet none of the prior eleven Chairs of our Committee exercised their authority with the degree of partisan brashness as is now the case in our Committee.
Hassling a scientist for unwelcome politics
Recently, political pressure on Exxon and the oil industry has been growing.
In May, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) gave a speech and penned an op-ed on the possibility of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) case against the energy industry, arguing that the “parallels between what the tobacco industry did and what the fossil fuel industry is doing now are striking.”
On September 1, a group of about 20 climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and OSTP Director John Holdren recommending that they look into a RICO case. Holdren replied, deferring any legal decisions to the Department of Justice but writing that “the Administration shares the concern expressed in the letter about the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change.”
On September 21, InsideClimate News published the first in what would become a blockbuster series of stories that made clear just how much Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and how soon, well before it spent millions of dollars deliberately obscuring the issue. In early October, the LA Times followed up with its own investigation.
On October 15, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) wrote Lynch asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether the company violated the law. On October 20, Bernie Sanders joined the call for a federal investigation.
None of this sat well with Smith, either. So he’s going after one of the scientists who signed the letter to Obama.
Apparently the letter was (inadvertently, the organization says) posted on the website of George Mason University’s Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES), a nonprofit research institution led by one of the scientists who signed the letter, Jagadish Shukla.
Science journalist Warren Cornwall tells what happened next: . . .
Sometimes it feels as though Congress has turned against the country—e.g., debt-ceiling crises. And certainly Congress is willing to sacrifice the privacy of citizens—though not their own: Jane Harman, is a former California Representative who was a member of the House Intelligence Committee and supported Bush’s warrantless (i.e., illegal) wiretapping program. But then (from Wikipedia):
In 2009, it was revealed NSA wiretaps reportedly intercepted a 2005 phone call between Harman and an agent of the Israeli government, in which Harman allegedly agreed to lobby the Justice Department to reduce or drop criminal charges against two employees of AIPAC in exchange for increased support for Harman’s campaign to chair the House Intelligence Committee.The NSA transcripts reportedly recorded Harman ending the phone call after saying, “this conversation doesn’t exist.” It was reported that Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General at the time of the phone call, blocked Justice Department lawyers from continuing the investigation into Harman (in spite of the alleged crime) because the Bush administration “needed Jane” to support their warrantless wiretapping program, which was soon to be revealed to the public by the New York Times.
Harman denied the allegations, and called for the government to release the full transcript of the wire-tapped conversation.In June 2009, Harman received a letter from the Justice Department declaring her “neither a subject nor a target of an ongoing investigation by the Criminal Division.” Though the espionage charges were later dropped on the two employees from AIPAC, against the wishes of the FBI, Harman did not get the chair for the foreign intelligence committee.
So wire-tapping is a two-edged sword, it seems. Jason Koebler reports at Motherboard:
The Senate passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act 74-21 Tuesday, a step that clears the path forward for the highly controversial cybersecurity bill, which allows companies to share customer data with the federal government, to become a law.
The bill incentivizes companies to share “cyber threat” data with the federal government in real time. “Cyber threats” are poorly defined in the bill’s language—some civil liberty experts have said that if your account has been used to send spam emails, for instance, it could lead to your information being passed to the Department of Homeland Security and then to the National Security Agency.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the most vocal critic of the legislation, has said that it’s a“surveillance bill,” not a cybersecurity one.
Earlier Tuesday, several important amendments that would have required companies to implement strong consumer privacy protections were narrowly voted down, meaning the bill that was passed is the same one that has been slammed by Google, Apple, dozens of civil liberties organizations, and independent cybersecurity researchers around the nation.
“CISA is a nightmare dressed as a daydream; a surveillance bill masquerading as a cybersecurity bill,” Nathan White, a lawyer with the civil liberties group Access, told me. “CISA is a backdoor to surveillance, giving the NSA access to more personal information for its expansive databases. CISA is fundamentally flawed because of its broad immunity clauses for companies, vague definitions, and aggressive spying powers.”
Congress has attempted to pass some form of CISA for the last four years—it was originally called the Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Protection Act—but strong opposition from citizens, tech companies, and privacy organizations made it too politically dangerous to put to a vote in the Senate.
High-profile cyber attacks such as the Sony breach, Ashley Madison hack, and the Office of Personnel Management hack have put the issue of cybersecurity back in focus, however. Though most cybersecurity experts say the bill will do little to protect against future breaches, lawmakers have made it a serious issue.
Up until the end, call-in, email, and letter writing campaigns opposing the bill as well as strong condemnations of the legislation from civil liberties groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Access, and major companies such as Apple and Google looked like they might have been able to kill the bill once again. Debate raged on the Senate floor for much of the last week and for seven hours Tuesday.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller gave an impassioned plea earlier in the day to pass one of his amendments, which would have implemented stronger privacy protections in the bill, calling “the solution worse than the problem.” . . .