Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category
Philip Smith reports in the Drug War Chronicles:
Two congressmen from two states where marijuana is already legal under state law today filed two separate bills to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a bill that would allow states to legalize marijuana without fear of federal intervention, while Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill that would tax marijuana at the federal level, in addition to any state taxes. The bills were not yet available on congressional web sites as of this afternoon.
Polis’s Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013) removes marijuana from the schedule set by the Controlled Substances Act; transitions marijuana oversight from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and regulates marijuana like alcohol by inserting language into the section of the US code governing “intoxicating liquors.””Over the past year, Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana like alcohol takes money away from criminals and cartels, grows our economy, and keeps marijuana out of the hands of children,” said Polis. “While President Obama and the Justice Department have allowed the will of voters in states like Colorado and 22 other jurisdictions to move forward, small business owners, medical marijuana patients, and others who follow state laws still live with the fear that a new administration — or this one — could reverse course and turn them into criminals. It is time for us to replace the failed prohibition with a regulatory system that works and let states and municipalities decide for themselves if they want, or don’t want, to have legal marijuana within their borders.”
Blumenauer’s Marijuana Tax Revenue Act (HR 1014) would, after federal legalization, impose a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes as well as apply an occupational tax for marijuana businesses. The bill would establish civil and criminal penalties for those who fail to comply, like those in place for the tobacco industry.
The bill also requires the IRS to produce periodic studies of the marijuana industry and to issue recommendations to Congress. It phases in an excise tax on the sale by a producer (generally the grower) to the next stage of production (generally the processor creating the useable product). This tax is initially set at 10% and rises over time to 25% as the legal market displaces the black market. Medical marijuana is exempt from this tax.”It’s time for the federal government to chart a new path forward for marijuana.” said Blumenauer. “Together these bills create a federal framework to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, much like we treat alcohol and tobacco. The federal prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, wasting tax dollars and ruining countless lives. As more states move to legalize marijuana as Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska have done, it’s imperative the federal government become a full partner in building a workable and safe framework.”
The federal bills come as marijuana is increasingly accepted in the US. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans . . .
Why it’s difficult to respect the GOP: The House GOP passed a bill to forbid the EPA from getting expert advice from scientists
Because why? Because ignorance is good, I guess. Beverly Mitchell reports at Habitat:
While everyone’s attention was focused on the Senate and the Keystone XL decision on Tuesday, some pretty shocking stuff was quietly going on in the House of Representatives. The GOP-dominated House passed a bill that effectively prevents scientists who are peer-reviewed experts in their field from providing advice — directly or indirectly — to the EPA, while at the same time allowing industry representatives with financial interests in fossil fuels to have their say. Perversely, all this is being done in the name of “transparency.”
Bill H.R. 1422, also known as the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, passed 229-191. It was sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), pictured. The bill changes the rules for appointing members to the Science Advisory Board (SAB), which provides scientific advice to the EPA Administrator. Among many other things, it states: “Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work.” This means that a scientist who had published a peer-reviewed paper on a particular topic would not be able to advise the EPA on the findings contained within that paper. That is, the very scientists who know the subject matter best would not be able to discuss it.
On Monday, the White House issued a statement indicating it would veto the bill if it passed, noting: “H.R. 1422 would negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.” Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) was more blunt, telling House Republicans on Tuesday: “I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.” . . .
The bill seems to me to be simply insane. I simply cannot grasp how any serious adult would sign on to that but this is how the GOP thinks.
George Packer writes in the New Yorker:
Last month, before a flight from Toronto to LaGuardia, I spent an hour waiting in line while United States Border Patrol and Customs officials questioned passengers. The line kept growing longer, the number of officials remained woefully inadequate, and as I stared at all the empty posts I imagined indifferent federal employees taking extra-long coffee breaks in a hidden room somewhere. When my turn finally came, a few terse questions from the guy in the blue uniform brought out that I was a journalist. He gave me a look with no trace of good humor. “You should do a report about this,” the official said, waving at the room. He briefly described what he saw as the long hours, the understaffing, the stress, the complaining passengers. Slightly ashamed, I agreed that it was an important story. He handed me back my passport. “Have a good trip home.”
Home: where a platform called NexTravel has just launched out of beta to make corporate business travel easier and cheaper, where Twitter has brought its “While You Were Away” iPhone feature to Android applications, where the “House of Cards: Season 3” rollout is at hand, and where politics is still dead. There’s a chance that funding for the Department of Homeland Security will expire Friday night. If that happens, around thirty thousand workers will be sent home on furlough, while the department’s two hundred thousand other employees will be required to report for duty without being compensated—including the guy at the Toronto airport.
You know the story—by now it’s what people in the news business call an evergreen. Congressional Republicans want something that they can’t get through the standard legislative process—this time, it’s the revoking of President Obama’s executive action temporarily exempting four million illegal immigrants from deportation. So a large faction of Republican legislators decides to hold a routine funding bill hostage to their demands. In this case, the House has passed a bill that would keep the D.H.S. from closing down only if the President’s immigration order is killed at the same time. Republicans on Capitol Hill are, as usual, divided between those who want to blow everything up and those who “understand” why their colleagues might be driven to threaten legislative suicide bombing but disagree with their tactics. The new Senate Republican majority’s fourth attempt at cloture failed on Monday, forty-seven to forty-six. That’s not even enough votes to pass the chamber bill by simple majority, which used to be the way legislation was enacted in the Senate, until Mitch McConnell, as minority leader, made the filibuster an everyday weapon. McConnell, now the majority leader, isn’t the first insurgent-turned-ruler to find himself cornered by his own history of abuses. Yes, the Democrats currently deploying the filibuster that they once denounced can be accused of hypocrisy. If not, you’d have to call them something worse: suckers.
It’s unlikely that the Islamic State would be able to take advantage of the threatened thirteen-per-cent furloughs at the D.H.S. to carry out its stated objective of bombing the Mall of America, near Minneapolis. For years, ideological extremism fuelled by organized money has degraded our political system, and that brings troubles as serious and lasting as external threats—which are serious enough, and all the harder to confront intelligently in an atmosphere like the one that prevails in Washington. These internal forces have steadily weakened the defenses of the body politic, leaving a demoralized federal work force, a routinization of poor working conditions and inadequate services, a strategy of total war on every issue that comes before Congress, and a national government that is the last place you’d look to for solutions to the country’s most corrosive problems.
Perhaps the Republicans have nothing to fear. . .
Kevin Drum points out the simple solution that journalists never seem to mention.
Interesting video program with transcript at Democracy Now! Their blurb:
In what has been described as the biggest intelligence leak since Edward Snowden, Al Jazeera has begun publishing a series of spy cables from the world’s top intelligence agencies. In one cable, the Israeli spy agency Mossad contradicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own dire warnings about Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb within one year. In a report to South African counterparts in October 2012, the Mossad concluded Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.” The explosive disclosure comes just as the United States and Iran have reported progress toward reaching a nuclear deal, an outcome Netanyahu will try to undermine when he addresses the U.S. Congress next week. We go to Doha to speak with Clayton Swisher, the head of Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, which broke the Iran story and several others in a series of articles called, “The Spy Cables.”
We already knew that NSA considered itself above the law with the illegal mass surveillance (without warrants). In fact, NSA not only considers itself above the law, but considers the US Constitution something that it can ignore—and so far as I can see, there is no overseer—not the President, not Congress, and certainly not law enforcement agencies—that can bring it into compliance with the laws and the Constitution. The NSA now is able to do whatever it wants, without any fear of accountability.
Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley have a lengthy and detailed report in The Intercept of what we know of the NSA’s lawbreaking:
AMERICAN AND BRITISH spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe, according to top-secret documents provided to The Intercept by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The hack was perpetrated by a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQdocument, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data.
The company targeted by the intelligence agencies, Gemalto, is a multinational firm incorporated in the Netherlands that makes the chips used in mobile phones and next-generation credit cards. Among its clients are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers around the world. The company operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities. One of its three global headquarters is in Austin, Texas and it has a large factory in Pennsylvania.
In all, Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year. Its motto is “Security to be Free.”
With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Possessing the keys also sidesteps the need to get a warrant or a wiretap, while leaving no trace on the wireless provider’s network that the communications were intercepted. Bulk key theft additionally enables the intelligence agencies to unlock any previously encrypted communications they had already intercepted, but did not yet have the ability to decrypt.
As part of the covert operations against Gemalto, spies from GCHQ — with support from the NSA — mined the private communications of unwitting engineers and other company employees in multiple countries.
Gemalto was totally oblivious to the penetration of its systems — and the spying on its employees. “I’m disturbed, quite concerned that this has happened,” Paul Beverly, a Gemalto executive vice president, told The Intercept. “The most important thing for me is to understand exactly how this was done, so we can take every measure to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and also to make sure that there’s no impact on the telecom operators that we have served in a very trusted manner for many years. What I want to understand is what sort of ramifications it has, or could have, on any of our customers.” He added that “the most important thing for us now is to understand the degree” of the breach.
Leading privacy advocates and security experts say that the theft of encryption keys from major wireless network providers is tantamount to a thief obtaining the master ring of a building superintendent who holds the keys to every apartment. “Once you have the keys, decrypting traffic is trivial,” says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The news of this key theft will send a shock wave through the security community.”
Beverly said that after being contacted by The Intercept, Gemalto’s internal security team began on Wednesday to investigate how their system was penetrated and could find no trace of the hacks. When asked if the NSA or GCHQ had ever requested access to Gemalto-manufactured encryption keys, Beverly said, “I am totally unaware. To the best of my knowledge, no.”
According to one secret GCHQ slide, the British intelligence agency penetrated Gemalto’s internal networks, planting malware on several computers, giving GCHQ secret access. We “believe we have their entire network,” the slide’s author boasted about the operation against Gemalto.
A good review of some recent books on the Social Security system by Jeff Madrick in the NY Review of Books:
Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It
by Charles D. Ellis, Alicia H. Munnell, and Andrew D. Eschtruth
Oxford University Press, 159 pp., $24.95
Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All
by Nancy J. Altman and Eric R. Kingson
New Press, 299 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Steering Clear: How to Avoid a Debt Crisis and Secure Our Economic Future
by Peter G. Peterson
Portfolio, 193 pp., $27.95
Social Security may well be the most popular social program in America. It is without question one of the nation’s two or three most significant of the past century, the great accomplishment of the New Deal. Some 52 percent of all married couples sixty-five and older today receive half or more of their income from Social Security. Three quarters of unmarried retired people do. Social Security has been a major factor in the reduction of poverty among the elderly from 35 percent in the 1950s to about 9 percent today. It pays benefits to disabled workers, widows, and children of deceased workers. Moreover, those payments are mostly progressive; higher-income recipients receive more in absolute dollars but less as a proportion of their preretirement income than do lower-income recipients.
Fifty-nine million workers received $863 billion in benefits last year, somewhat less than a quarter of all federal spending, but in an early 2014 survey by CBS News, 73 percent of Americans thought the benefits paid by Social Security were worth the costs. Some three out of five in a 2013 survey undertaken at the time the congressional “sequestration” was being put in place to cut government spending believed that Social Security benefits should not be reduced. Social Security did not lose its popularity even when government spending became a major headline issue in the late 1980s and 1990s. A 1996 survey found overwhelming support.
This popularity may explain why it has seemed easy to frighten the general public about Social Security’s demise with an alarmist campaign by conservative think tanks and policymakers but also by some Democrats that has been underway since the 1990s and early 2000s, and continues today.
Reporters and policymakers routinely say that Social Security is going broke or is bankrupt. Some right-wing economists and policymakers repeatedly warn that the system has unfunded liabilities of tens of trillions of dollars. A more subtle tactic, often taken up by Democrats, is to claim persistently that Social Security must be “saved.” The Democratic economist Alice Rivlin did so in a Brookings Institution report, even while assailing those who exaggerate the problem. In just the first week of the new Congress, the Republican House voted not to use modest funds from Social Security taxes to replenish the Social Security disability fund—the separate fund to help disabled people of all ages—which it has done eleven times in the past. It said it feared weakening the future of payments to retired people. Now, there will be a showdown about disability payments in 2016 when its own fund runs out.
Since there will be far fewer workers to support retirees as baby boomers retire in ever-greater numbers in coming years, rhetoric about the frailty of Social Security may seem appropriate. But Social Security is simply not going broke or bankrupt. These claims, writes the business journalist David Cay Johnston in an foreword to Social Security Works!, one of the informative books considered here, are typically artful forms of deception or outright “lies.” I agree. Moreover, there is a new and growing countermovement among Democrats that favors not merely refusing to cut any benefits at all but also increasing benefits—which are now, after all, just enough for most people to keep going. Its main proponent is Senator Elizabeth Warren. In this presidential primary season, a big question is whether it will take hold.
The Social Security deficit is not meaningless but it is far smaller than often suggested. Every year, the trustees of Social Security are required to project its economic status—essentially, the difference between payroll tax receipts and the benefits paid—over seventy-five years. Payroll taxes will exceed benefits over much of this period, creating a temporary surplus that also accumulates interest income, but this will run down by the 2030s. At that point, as tax receipts lag behind benefits, Social Security will be in deficit. Over the projected seventy-five-year period, however, the deficit will come to only somewhat more than 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The liabilities of trillions of dollars into the future seem frightening only if one doesn’t compare them over the years to Gross Domestic Product, the nation’s total output, which in 2014 alone was more than $17 trillion. Even if nothing is done, Social Security will still pay out 75 percent of benefits in the 2030s and beyond, according to the projection, hardly the definition of going broke.
Still, a reduction to 75 percent of benefits is substantial and it is best to make plans to eliminate the deficit soon rather than wait to make a larger, more painful, and perhaps politically more difficult adjustment ten or twenty years from now. The question is whether to cut benefits or raise taxes, or a combination of both. Benefit cuts were instituted in 1983, mostly through a gradual increase in the retirement age from sixty-five to sixty-seven, and new income taxes on Social Security benefits for middle- to high-income retirees.
These changes are beginning to amount to a significant reduction in benefits compared to preretirement income. At the same time, retirees are also increasingly less well covered by private pensions, as we shall see. Thus, there is now a strong case to be made that the gap should be closed by tax increases, part of which would be progressive, rather than any benefit cuts at all.
Moreover, any tax increase would be moderate. Today, both workers and their employers contribute 6.2 percent of wages up to $118,500 to Social Security, or a maximum of $7,347 for a year, above which cap there are no taxes. The payroll tax need only be raised by 1.44 percent for workers and employers each, or an annual maximum of roughly $1,700, to close the projected gap completely. For a typical worker who makes, say $45,000 a year, the increase would come to about $650. Further, if the $118,500 cap on taxable income were raised to help reduce the deficit, rates on middle- and low-income workers need not be raised nearly as much as on others, making the system more progressive as higher-income workers pay more taxes.
Nevertheless, resistance to tax hikes among policymakers has raised the possibility that, with a Republican Congress and with the agreement of many Democrats, Social Security benefits will be cut this year or next. Raising the retirement age further is a commonly discussed proposal, but this would amount to a significant cut in benefits as workers receive lower payments over the remainder of their lives. . .
The resistance to raising taxes has become insane, IMO.
In a thoughtful piece at Mischiefs of Faction, Peter Hanson questions the value of interviewing politicians about aspects of politics outside their expertise. As an example, he links to this Vox story by an anonymous member of Congress, entitled “Confessions of a Congressman,” that purportedly blows the lid off of Congress by revealing nine inconvenient truths that the public is not supposed to know. However, if you read through them, you find that they’re either pretty banal, untrue, or contradicted by the other points. I’ll go through them one at a time.
- “Anyone who is closer to your district than you are will replace you.” So much for the incumbency effect. Voters are apparently paying attention to how their member of Congress votes and will dump him if he’s not representing them. OK, interesting, but then there’s the next point….
- Congress panders to big donors. Ah, so members will just vote how their big donors want them to vote. But, wait, as Hanson noted, this totally contradicts point 1. Members can exclusively vote their districts or they can exclusively vote their donors, but they can’t do both.
- Redistricting gives everyone safe districts, which is why members love it. This is patently untrue. Redistricting may be done to achieve all sorts of ends. Yes, sometimes it’s to make everyone’s district safer. Quite often, though, it’s for one party to acquire more seats. That’s usually achieved by making more competitive districts that are slightly favorable to the majority party. This creates more seats that are less safe. The infamous 2004 redistricting in Texas dramatically increased the number of Republican House members elected from that state but made those districts more competitive. Also, members don’t necessarily look forward to redistricting. Changing the districts means giving them more voters who don’t know them; the first election after a redistricting can be a risky and tiring one for incumbents.
- “Both parties have destroyed your privacy at the polling booth.” I’m not really sure what he’s getting at here. Yes, in most states, party registration is public, even while votes are private, so campaigns can know how voters lean. But that’s not the same as knowing how they voted.
- Members of Congress just vote their party. Wait a minute. You just said they just vote their districts. Then you said they just vote for what their big donors want. If they’re just voting their party, then they must be angering their voters and donors some of the time. How is it that 90 percent of them keep getting re-elected?
- Committees are a waste of time. This is one of those areas where it’s actually useful to know a member’s insider perspective. Obviously, committees are important—that’s where much of the work of creating and debating legislation occurs. And just a few decades ago, a great deal of deference was awarded to committees; if they liked a bill, it generally passed. It’s quite possible a lot of that deference is gone in an era of strong partisanship.
- Members of Congress vote in a way to keep lobbying groups happy so they can get jobs there later. OK, wait, now members are voting how lobbyists tell them? But I thought they voted their districts, or their voters, or their party. What the hell?
- The best people don’t run for Congress. That’s certainly possible, although I suppose the definition of “best” is pretty important here. The system we’ve devised to pick leaders requires them to raise money, give speeches, meet lots of people, engage in debates … lots of skills that aren’t necessarily important to actually being a good representative. And that might discourage quite a few qualified people from running. As Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon’sresearch suggests, it might be discouraging quite a few very qualified women from running.
- We shouldn’t be cynical. Got it. And a member of Congress anonymously trashing his institution should really help along those lines.
As I’ve suggested, there are a lot of problems with this list of difficult “truths.” A few of them are interesting and revealing. But some of them just aren’t true, and quite a few are contradictory. But probably the most interesting takeaway is the range of influences on a member’s vote. . . .